You come home from a long day at work and your 2 year old chocolate lab, Miss Moneypenny, greets you enthusiastically at the door. You place your purse and keys on the table and set off to make some dinner. When you return 15 minutes later, the purse and its contents are scattered on the living room rug. After assessing the damage, you realize that young Miss Moneypenny has in fact eaten almost an entire package of sugar-free gum. At first, you think nothing of it, but then you remember hearing something about sugar-free gum posing a danger to dogs. After spending a few minutes on the internet, you discover that the sugar-free gum that your lab has eaten contains an ingredient called xylitol. The internet says that xylitol is potentially very dangerous for dogs, though yours appears to be just fine at the moment. What should you do? Do you really have to bring her all the way to an emergency clinic? Since xylitol is an ingredient in many commonplace foods and candies, it’s important for every pet owner to know some basic facts.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol sweetener that can be found not only in many brands of sugarless gum, but also in some types of baked goods. It can even be purchased in bulk quantities for baking purposes. Humans use xylitol instead of regular sugar because it is absorbed more slowly and is therefore thought to be a safer alternative for diabetics. Xylitol is also favored as an additive in sugar-free gum because some studies have shown that it is less likely to cause cavities. While it is harmless to humans, xylitol can pose a serious risk to animals. When a toxic amount of xylitol is eaten by a dog, large amounts of insulin are released. In health, insulin is responsible for absorbing sugar from the bloodstream for storage. However, when a large amount of insulin is released suddenly, this can cause the blood sugar to drop to dangerous levels, causing weakness, confusion, a wobbly gait and even seizures. Since xylitol is absorbed rapidly, clinical signs are often, though not always, noticed within 10-30 minutes after ingestion. Xylitol has also been shown to be irritating to the liver and has the potential to cause serious liver injury. For dogs, an ingestion of 0.1 grams of xylitol per kilogram of body weight is generally considered to be a toxic amount. The amount found in sugar-free gum can vary widely from 0.1 gram to 2 grams per piece depending on the brand and flavor. Many times, the packaging for gum and other products that include xylitol does not specify the amount that has been added.
If you suspect that your dog has ingested a substance that contains xylitol, the first step is to contact your veterinarian or a nearby emergency facility. A veterinary professional can first help you to figure out if your dog has ingested enough xylitol to pose a problem. If that is the case, you should bring your dog in for evaluation due to the potential for serious side effects. In many cases, the veterinarian will administer a medication to induce vomiting and decrease further absorption of the toxin. They will also recommend checking bloodwork to evaluate blood sugar and liver enzymes. In serious cases, hospitalization with IV fluids and observation may be required. As with any toxicity, the best solution is prevention. If you have a dog, taking simple measures to prevent access to foods that contain xylitol is the best way to prevent an emergency visit.
If you ever have a concern your pet may have ingested xylitol or any other toxin, the staff at Burlington Emergency and Veterinary Specialists can be reached by phone at 802-863-2387.
-Dr. Rachel Morgan