Xylitol (Artificial Sweetener)

Xylitol (Artificial Sweetener)

A lot of “dog folk” are unaware of Xylitol, it’s affects on our furry friends or which products you may find it in – I mean, if you don’t know where it will show up, it’s very difficult to avoid it, right?

Those of you who know me, will be aware that I have no interest in frightening people witless.  I am, however, very keen to equip dog owners with the facts they need to enable their pet to live a long, happy and healthy life.  Today’s blog is me making an effort to explain more about this additive in a non-scientific kind of way that will make sense to us ordinary, non-medical members of the public.  If you feel there is more you would like to know, simply Googling Xylitol will give you a good starting point.

So let’s start with the basics.  Xylitol is an artificial sweetener additive.  It is a natural substance which comes from the bark of Birch trees.  It has just two thirds of the calorific content of sugar and because of this it is thought to be good for dental health as it is less likely to cause cavities and decay.  This sweetener is often used in diabetic foods, rather than ordinary sugars.

Some Chewing Gums Contain Xylitol
Some Chewing Gums Contain Xylitol

We all know that foods such as chocolate, grapes and raisins are toxic to dogs but it appears most people don’t realize that products containing Xylitol may cause even more harm.

As the number of products containing Xylitol grows, so to do the number of canine poisoning cases.  The first paper published in a veterinary journal about Xylitol didn’t appear until 2004 as compared to the first paper regarding the toxicity of chocolate which came out in 1981.

Xylitol is perfectly safe for people but dogs don’t deal with it in the same way we do.  For them, it causes the body to release a large amount of insulin.  Insulin is normally produced to control blood sugar levels.  When insulin is released in this way it causes a sudden drop in blood sugar.  This condition is called hypoglycaemia.

Signs of hypoglycemia include:-
dilated pupils
and, in severe cases, seizures and liver failure.

Signs of Xylitol Poisoning:
If a large amount of Xylitol is swallowed, there is a possibility that it may lead to liver failure although this does not always happen.

Symptoms of xylitol intoxication include:

  • Vomiting
  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Diarrhoea
  • Loss of coordination
  • Collapse
  • Seizures

If you suspect your pet has eaten a product containing xylitol and is experiencing any of these symptoms, immediate veterinary care is needed to save your dog’s life.

So, how much Xylitol might you find in products that contain it?  Well that’s a difficult one to answer for two reasons.  Firstly, some times manufacturers do not list it in their ingredients at all since they consider it to be proprietary information or, if they do, they may not actually say how much Xylitol is in the product, only that it is there.  Another problem is that the amounts will vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, product to product and flavour to flavour so there is no real way of knowing exactly what levels to expect.  What we do know is that the toxic dose for dogs is 75-100 mg/kg (but due to the differences as noted above, the quantity of xylitol in one piece of gum for instance, ranges from 0.9 mg to 1,000 mg)

Depending on the product, the amounts of Xylitol vary and it’s the actual dosage itself that causes the level of toxicity.  Toothpaste/Dental Wash, for example may have Xylitol in it but it is in such small amounts that it does not cause sickness (however, some vets have taken the decision to withdraw such products on a “just in case” precautionary basis).

Often, the Xylitol in a product is released by the action of physically chewing.  As dogs usually just swallow whatever they find, with very little chewing, this gives us longer to make the animal vomit before the toxins begin to leech out into the stomach.  In products such as sweets or mints, it is found in powder form which is quickly absorbed.  We might expect to see signs of illness in around 30 minutes or so.

Having said all of this, Xylitol is not right up there with antifreeze or rat poison and, once you work out that this is the cause of your dog’s illness, it is fairly easy to treat with supportive treatment such as the administration of fluids with dextrose to increase the sugar levels in the blood.  In severe cases, it may also be necessary to try dexamethasone which is a corticosteroid, and glucagon which is a hormone, to reverse the hypoglycaemia.

As we’ve commented above, the incidence of Xylitol being found is increasing markedly these days.  It is used in all sorts of products from gum, sweets, dental rinses, nasal sprays, powdered protein, chewable vitamins, ketchup, yoghurt, throat lozenges, sugar replacement for baking …. blah blah blah – the list goes on!

The following link will take you to a list of products that may contain Xylitol:  http://petdiabetes.wikia.com/wiki/Sugar-Free_Products_Warnings