You’re walking your dog through the neighborhood, and he’s suddenly chewing away on a piece of gum like a teenager. Oh well. No worries, right? Wrong! Most dog owners are aware of how dangerous chocolate can be to our dogs. But you may not know that sugar-free gum, which contains xylitol, is just as dangerous.
What Is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a low-calorie sugar substitute used to improve the taste of products that don’t contain sugar. You can find it in gum and candy, peanut butter, and sugar-free baked goods. You may be surprised to find out that other products that sometimes contain xylitol include chewable vitamins, dental products, nasal sprays, sunscreen, deodorant, make-up and hair products, some human medications, and even baby wipes.
“Xylitol produces a nice cooling sensation, so it can be really soothing on the skin,” Dr. Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT and the Pet Poison Helpline’s director of veterinary services and senior veterinary toxicologist reported to the American Animal Hospital Association. “It’s also a humectant, which means it can help maintain moisture in a product like baby wipes.”
According to the Pet Poison Hotline, xylitol pet poisonings have more than doubled in the last 5 years as we’re seeing a substantial increase in the number of products that use xylitol. In 2020, the number of calls to the helpline concerning xylitol poisoning was second only to chocolate poisoning calls.
What’s the Danger?
Typically, the dose of xylitol needed to cause poisoning is at least 0.05 grams per pound of body weight (0.1 grams per kilogram of body weight). Chewing gum and breath mints contain 0.22-1.0 gram of xylitol per piece of gum or per mint. Thus, to achieve a potentially toxic dose, a 10-pound dog would only have to eat one piece of gum.
Xylitol toxicosis occurs in dogs after ingestion of xylitol or xylitol-containing products, according to the Merck Veterinary Manual. Profound hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) is the most common clinical effect, which may result in vomiting, weakness, depression, hypokalemia (extremely low potassium levels), seizures, and/or coma. Some dogs have developed severe liver damage after xylitol ingestion. Signs of poisoning can develop in as little as 30 minutes to one hour. Dogs are the only domestic species where a toxic reaction to xylitol has been seen.
Why is xylitol so toxic to dogs? The reason, according to Merck, is that ingestion causes a massive insulin release. The most common effect of xylitol poisoning in dogs is a precipitous drop in blood sugar, which can lead to loss of consciousness and seizures.
Symptoms of hypoglycemia or low blood sugar in dogs include:
Treatment for Xylitol Poisoning
If you suspect that your dog may have consumed sugar-free gum or any other product containing xylitol, immediately call your vet or the Pet Poison Helpline (800-213-6680).
Do not induce vomiting or give anything orally to your dog unless specifically directed to do so by your veterinarian. It is important to get treatment for your dog as quickly as possible. If a dog is already exhibiting signs of hypoglycemia, inducing vomiting could make them worse.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, the prognosis for uncomplicated hypoglycemia is good, if prompt treatment is obtained. Mild increases in liver enzyme levels usually resolve within a few days. However, xylitol poisoning can be fatal without early veterinary intervention.
At this time, there is no antidote for xylitol toxicity. Your veterinarian will usually monitor your dog for at least 12 hours for blood sugar levels and liver function, and if the dog’s blood sugar remains too low, he may require treatment for one-to-two days with an IV glucose solution.
Dogs certainly have a sweet tooth, and some will gluttonously go for any sweets they can find. That’s why it’s so important to dog-proof your house and ensure that your dog can’t get into potentially harmful foods and products, such as xylitol-containing gum and candy. You’ll also need to keep an eye out for any gum your dog might sneak out of purses, from the trashcan, in the car, or off the ground.
Sugar-free gum almost always contains xylitol. Unfortunately, it’s sometimes difficult to tell whether other products contain this ingredient. The labels may list sugar alcohols, but not whether one of them is xylitol. The other sugar alcohols, sorbitol and maltitol, aren’t toxic to dogs. The safest choice is to be wary of any product that has a label designating it as “sugar-free” or “no sugar added.”
Always brush you dog’s teeth with toothpaste specifically designated for dogs, and never with one for people. And even when your dog is staring at you imploringly with those big brown eyes, don’t share your food if there’s a chance it may contain xylitol.