Xylitol: You may not know what it is, or even how to pronounce it, but it's in a growing number of products from toothpaste to Jell-O. And while it's perfectly safe for you, even a tiny amount can kill your dog, and it may be dangerous to other pets, too.
I spoke with veterinary toxicologist Dr. Steven Hansen of the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, who told me reports of xylitol poisoning in dogs are on the rise. He says that's partly due to increased awareness among veterinarians and dog owners, but mostly because it's being used in more products than ever before.
This increased popularity is due to many factors. A type of natural sweetener known as a "sugar alcohol," xylitol not only doesn't cause tooth decay, it prevents it. It's widely used in all kinds of dental products including sugar-free gum, breath mints, toothpaste and mouthwash; even some veterinary dental products intended for canine use contain trace amounts of xylitol (which is safe).
Xylitol has fewer calories than sugar and doesn't impact human blood sugar levels, so it's also become a favorite of diabetics, dieters and anyone trying to cut down on his or her sugar consumption. That means you'll find it in muffin, brownie and cookie mixes, as well as candy, energy bars, Jell-O, pudding and ice cream. It's even sold in bulk for use in baking and beverages. In fact, just about anything sweet may contain xylitol.
While this sweetener may be safe and beneficial for people, when it comes to dogs it's another story. They metabolize xylitol very differently than we do, and it can send canine blood sugar plummeting to life-threatening lows in just minutes, followed within 12 to 24 hours by liver failure, which is often fatal. In fact, it's so deadly that as few as three pieces of xylitol-sweetened sugar-free gum can kill a 20-pound dog.
Because dogs love sweets and can sniff out food better than almost any other mammal, dogs owners need to be extremely careful to keep xylitol out of dogs' reach. Start by reading the labels on everything you buy. If a product contains the sweetener, treat it like a prescription medication and keep it where your dog can't possibly get to it. If you buy or make anything that contains xylitol, make sure family members are aware of it and don't feed their leftover sweets to the family dog.
If despite your vigilance your dog gets into something sweetened with xylitol, at least hope you're lucky enough to have witnessed it. Time is critical; the first thirty minutes can tell the tale of whether your dog will live or die.
If the only clue that your dog was exposed to xylitol is an empty muffin tin you'd left cooling on the counter, or scattered gum wrappers next to your purse, assume the worst. Ditto even if you don't think your dog ate anything that could contain the sweetener, but he's showing signs of lethargy, staggering, tremors or seizures, or is unconscious. Some, but not all, dogs also vomit and have diarrhea.
If you know or suspect your dog consumed xylitol, or observe any of those symptoms, contact your veterinarian immediately and tell them you suspect xylitol poisoning. You can also call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control hotline.
Depending on your dog's size, how long it's been since he was exposed, and how much of a dose he got, your dog's veterinarian or the APCC toxicologist may recommend inducing vomiting. However, warned Dr. Hansen, if there is any chance the dog also ate something else Ð such as medication that might have been in your purse Ð along with the xylitol, vomiting could be harmful. Some poisons can interfere with the dog's gag reflex, causing him to inhale the toxins instead of throwing up. Make sure you talk with a vet before deciding to make your dog vomit.
The timing here is crucial. "If the ingestion was virtually immediate, inducing vomiting is a reasonable concept," he said. "If it's more than 30 minutes, it's probably of no value whatsoever."
Your vet will tell you to bring your dog to the hospital, and that's a necessity, not just a good idea. "We certainly don't want anybody getting into an accident getting to the veterinary hospital," Dr. Hansen said. "But it is something that we need to act on fairly soon. I would sure like to have them be seen within the first hour or two."
Once your pet gets to the clinic, the vet will likely check his blood sugar level and administer glucose intravenously. Cases caught early have the best prognosis. "If it's within the first few hours we have a high degree of success," said Dr. Hansen. "It gets more cloudy when we get at the 12- to 24-hour range."
Even if you have a fairly large dog, such as Labrador retriever, who consumed only two or three pieces of gum, having your veterinarian check her out is probably a good idea. "If it was my Gracie, who is a 45-pound wirehaired pointing griffon," Dr. Hansen told me, "I'd probably monitor her blood glucose just to make sure."
What about pets other than dogs? Cat owners can probably relax. The ASPCA has received thousands of reports of xylitol toxicity in dogs, but none in cats. Because cats aren't the indiscriminate gobblers dogs are and don't have much of a sweet tooth, it's hard to be certain, but Dr. Hansen doesn't think dietary discretion is the reason they're not seeing feline cases. More likely, they simply don't react to xylitol like dogs do. "We're really rather confident that this is not an issue in cats," he said.
Ferret and rabbit owners, however, need to be more cautious. There are a handful of recorded cases of toxicity in those species, so keep products containing xylitol away from your small pets -- challenging as that can be with ferrets, infamous for getting into things their owners would rather they didn't. Still, this is primarily a concern for dog owners; the ASPCA has only a few reported cases in ferrets and rabbits, and more than 2,000 in dogs.
The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center is available for any animal poison-related emergency 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. If you think that your pet may have ingested a potentially poisonous substance, call (888) 426-4435. The consultation fee is $60.
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