In 2010, Myles, an inquisitive puppy, belonging to the Reiser family from Rogers, Arkansas in the United States, found chewing gum in a shopping bag, and as dogs tend to do, ate it. Unfortunately, the chewing gum contained xylitol, a sugar substitute, which made Myles very ill.
The Reisers rushed Myles to an animal emergency clinic where a veterinarian induced vomiting and saved his life. Myles had eaten 18 pieces of chewing gum which immediately made him sick. If he had only eaten two to three pieces, he might have died later without showing such violent symptoms.
A sugar substitute in many everyday foods
Use of xylitol has exploded over the past decade, fuelled by the popularity of low-carb and carb-free/sugar-free diets. This naturally occurring sugar alcohol is now found as a sugar substitute in many everyday foods, from baked goods and sweets to jams and jelly powder, and also in pharmaceuticals (e.g. cough syrup, kids' chewable vitamins, nasal sprays), chewing gum, toothpaste and mouthwash.
Xylitol is non-toxic in humans (at worst, it can cause mild diarrhoea if eaten in large amounts), but especially in smaller dogs, even small quantities can cause serious illness, which may be fatal for Fido.
The Animal Poison Control Centre of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) reports a sharp rise in toxicity cases in dogs in recent years.
Dr Denver Mudie, owner at Manorswood Veterinary Clinic in Johannesburg and a member of the South African Veterinary Association (SAVA) concurs that a similar pattern is likely in South Africa: “Xylitol toxicity in dogs definitely happens and we are seeing more these days due to the latest diet trends using xylitol for its low glycaemic index (GI)in humans.”
“But xylitol does not work in the same way in dogs and can have disastrous consequences if they ingest it. The toxic dose of xylitol is 0.1g per 1 kg – and a stick of chewing gum can contain 0.3-0.4g of xylitol”.
Read: Food never to feed your dog
What happens when dogs eat xylitol
The two major consequences of xylitol ingestion, says Dr Mudie, are severe hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar), and liver necrosis (death of liver tissue).
“The canine body confuses xylitol with normal sugar (sucrose) and releases insulin to compensate. However, xylitol doesn't provide the dog with calories, so the sugar reserves in the body of the dog are depleted. Symptoms of hypoglycaemia include weakness, disorientation, tremors and even seizures.”
Although the dose for liver damage to occur is about 10 times higher, says Mudie, this is still a major side-effect of xylitol toxicity. “The exact mechanism of action is unknown but the resultant liver failure leads to vomiting, diarrhoea, internal bleeding and the inability to clot blood. This can ultimately result in death.”
The effect of xylitol is usually seen within 10-60 minutes but symptoms can take up to 12 hours to appear.
Read: Choosing the right food for your dog
Can dogs recover from xylitol poisoning?
If treated quickly, dogs can recover from xylitol toxicity. Sugar supplementation, IV fluids and liver support therapy constitutes the main treatment given, says Mudie.
The prognosis is good for dogs that are treated before symptoms develop, or for dogs that develop uncomplicated hypoglycemia that is reversed rapidly. If liver failure or a bleeding disorder develops, the prognosis is generally poor. If the dog lapses into a coma, the prognosis is very poor.
If your dog is showing any of the symptoms of poisoning mentioned above, get it to a veterinarian for treatment as quickly as possible. Consult your veterinarian if your dog has ingested xylitol, even if it doesn't show any symptoms yet. Don't try to induce vomiting or give anything orally to your dog unless specifically directed by your veterinarian.
How to prevent xylitol poisoning
- The simplest and safest way to avoid xylitol and other kinds of poisoning, say veterinarians, is to only feed your pets foods that are clinically approved or that are clearly designated as intended for that species. Don't give in to the temptation to give pets treats from your table.
In addition to possible poisoning, “human food” can be bad for pets' general health.
- If you use products containing xylitol, make sure they are stored out of reach of your pets. Check labels: xylitol may also be listed as Birch Sugar, E967, Meso-Xylitol, Méso-Xylitol, Sucre de Bouleau, Xilitol, Xylit, Xylite, Xylo-pentane-1,2,3,4,5-pentol, Sugar Alcohol.
Again, to be sure, keep all gum and dental products designed for humans away from pets whether these contain xylitol or not. Other kinds of artificial sweetener have not been shown to be toxic to pets, but they should be avoided nonetheless.
- Only use pet toothpaste for pets, never toothpaste designed for human dental care.
The toxicity of xylitol for cats and other species has not yet been documented, although there has been some concern that non-primate species may react to xylitol in a similar manner to dogs.
Other foods that could harm or kill your pet
The journal Interdisciplinary Toxicology published research that warns owners should also not feed their pets chocolate, caffeine, grapes, raisins, onion, garlic, avocado, alcohol and nuts. Read this list to understand why not, and other foods to avoid.