The Skinny on Sugar-Free – How Xylitol Can Affect Your Dog

May 12, 2016

“Sugar-free”, “sugarless”, “reduced sugar.” These are all very common statements used in human consumables. Less sugar can mean weight loss, improved health, diabetic control and reduced tooth decay. Sounds wonderful and maybe it is – if you are human. For dogs sugar substitutes can be potentially lethal.

Xylitol is a white, crystalline sugar alcohol made from the bark of the birch tree. It is used as a sugar substitute sweetener in many products. In the US, the use of xylitol has grown rapidly over the last few years. The most common place to find Xylitol is in sugar-free gum, but is increasingly found in other candy and foods. It is also available in granulated form for baking to sweeten beverages, cereals and other foods.  Xylitol is sometimes included in toothpastes and other oral hygiene products.

While xylitol seems to be safe for human consumption, the same cannot be said for dogs. In humans, xylitol is absorbed slowly and has little to no effect on blood sugar or insulin levels. However, in dogs, xylitol is completely absorbed into the bloodstream in just thirty minutes. Just a small amount of xylitol can cause a dangerous insulin surge and a rapid drop in a dog’s blood sugar (hypoglycemia). Signs of xylitol toxicosis and low blood sugar include: vomiting, weakness, lethargy, loss of coordination, collapse, and seizures. If the hypoglycemia is severe enough, death is possible.  In dogs, xylitol can also cause severe liver damage, leading to bleeding, liver failure and death.

How much Xylitol is toxic to your dog? The answer – not much. Just one piece of sugarless gum can cause low blood sugar in a 20 lb dog. If you suspect your dog has ingested even a small amount of xylitol, you should seek immediate veterinary care. Ideally your dog would be seen by your veterinarian within 30 minutes and can be made to vomit. Then monitoring and intravenous fluids spiked with dextrose (sugar) for 24 hours to watch for any hypoglycemia. Checking liver enzymes and blood clotting tests two to three days after ingestion is recommended as well. Because xylitol is absorbed so quickly early treatment will provide the best results. For most dogs, when treated quickly the prognosis is very good.