One of the benefits of our growing use of online media is the availability of timely and important information, and over recent years there has been a general increase in awareness by pet owners of foods that are dangerous to pets - largely due to the attention they get in social media at times when the risks often increase such as at Easter and Christmas. Pets owners therefore generally know the dangers that foods such as chocolate, onions, garlic and raisins pose to their furry companions’ health, but less known is an ingredient called xylitol which is a serious concern year-round and is more common than many people think.
Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that is used as a substitute for sugar in many human food products but can also be found in other consumer goods. Xylitol consumption can be very dangerous for dogs but is less so for cats.
Why is xylitol dangerous for dogs?
Xylitol causes a rapid and massive insulin release in dogs which leads to low blood sugar and liver injury. Depending on the dose, liver failure and death are possible. Even though low blood sugar can occur relatively quickly after ingestion – approximately 30 minutes – the symptoms can take much longer to show such as up to 12 hours.
Symptoms of xylitol poisoning
The signs of low blood sugar include weakness and unsteadiness, progressing to seizures, and with larger doses dogs can be comatose within 15 to 20 minutes. Signs of liver damage may include lethargy, a decrease in appetite, vomiting and diarrhoea, and yellowing of the skin. Symptoms indicating liver injury may not be noticeable for two-to- three days after ingestion.
In what can xylitol be found?
Xylitol can be found in many commonly purchased products, with gum or food items being the most common, although various products – particularly gum – can have vastly different amounts of xylitol. One piece of a certain type of gum could be considerably more toxic than six pieces of another – the amount of xylitol contained in the foodstuff is the relevant factor.
With the increase in the promotion of sugar-free products, particularly for weight loss, dental health and use by diabetics, there is also an increase in the consumption of foods that contain xylitol, and that means greater risk for animals and an increase in the number of xylitol-poisonings. If sweet-tasting foods, especially gums, are labelled as sugar-free, then it’s a warning sign for xylitol.
Other products in which xylitol can be found include:
- Personal items such as make-up, sunscreen, lip balm baby wipes and disposable nappies
- Lotions, gels and deodorants
- Dental healthcare products such as toothpaste, mouthwash, dental floss, breath fresheners and mints
- Medications, especially those containing melatonin, gummy vitamins, and liquid prescription products
Even though dental products usually do not contain the same levels of xylitol as gum, it’s is widely used as a sugar substitute because of its sweet, appealing taste, and its plaque-fighting properties.
Food items in which xylitol may be found include:
- Cakes and baked items
- Pancake syrup
- Tomato and barbecue sauce
- Powdered drinks
Sweet foods such as cupcakes and biscuits containing xylitol will usually have a lot more sweetener in them than mouthwash for example, therefore animals that consume food products such as these that may be packed with xylitol would potentially be facing a life-threatening situation.
Trace amounts of xylitol can be found in many fruits and vegetables, but because it’s in such small amounts and is naturally occurring it’s unlikely to be a problem for pets.
Why is xylitol used in non-food products?
Even though it may seem odd to put artificial sweetener in personal care products, it’s done because of xylitol’s humectant properties, which means it can help a product retain moisture. This makes it the perfect ingredient for products such as these. It’s important to remember that xylitol can be found in lotions and other topical products because dogs are lickers, and they sometimes eat non-food products.
If you suspect that your pet has consumed xylitol
If you know what your pet has ingested, check the ingredients label on the product. If it contains xylitol and your pet shows any abnormal behaviour take them to a vet hospital immediately. A vet will check your pet’s blood sugar and liver enzymes to determine whether there is any abnormality. If low blood sugar is detected, dextrose may be administered to bring sugar levels back up, in order to avoid any serious complications.
Depending on the severity, your vet may suggest feeding your dog something sweet such as honey to help keep their blood sugar up temporarily on your way to the hospital, therefore you should call first before leaving home, but don’t delay your trip. Even if your pet is still acting normally, you should call your vet for advice. Be sure to provide them with the amount of xylitol your pet has ingested if known, how long ago, as well as your pet’s weight.
Keep your pets safe
If you have a mischievous and inquisitive puppy, or a dog that’s prone to snaffling food, it’s best to avoid bringing products with xylitol into your home as much as possible.
- When shopping, check the list of ingredients on all products... If you bring something with it into your home, you’re better to know beforehand so you can ensure that it’s kept out of the reach of your pets.
- Always carefully read the entire ingredient list of any food before giving it to your dog because some products that are not labelled as sugar-free still contain xylitol.
- Try to make a habit of keeping handbags and backpacks off the floor, to reduce the risk of furry sticky-beaks reaching what’s inside.
- If taking medication, do it away from your pets – and preferably in a room that they cannot enter – in case you drop something. Also, be sure to find and pick-up anything you drop so that your pet can’t.
Xylitol starts with an “X”, therefore make this a reminder to cross it off your list of safe things for your pets, especially dogs. Be sure to educate anyone who cares for your dog about the risk, and well-meaning visitors and family members who might think that they’re giving your dog a treat by slipping them a lolly or another high-risk food. The increase in the incidence of xylitol poisonings is a timely reminder that education, caution, and vigilance are necessary, particularly as the levels of awareness of its toxicity to dogs are generally less than other dangerous foods.
If you have any questions, please contact any of the Vets4Pets hospitals. If your pet needs urgent veterinary care, we have a 24/7 emergency hospital at Golden Grove.