By Stephanie Watson
WebMD Health News
Between Halloween and the upcoming holidays, the season of treats is here. But if those treats contain xylitol — a sugar substitute found in products like sugar-free gum, mints, candy, and baked goods — they can be deadly to dogs.
Over the past few years, the FDA has received several reports of dogs that have gotten sick — or even died — after eating xylitol. WebMD asked Carmela Stamper, DVM, from the FDA Center for Veterinary Medicine, how to prevent xylitol poisoning in your pet. Along with treats, the sugar substitute is also found in some vitamins, mouthwash and toothpaste. Stamper also explains what to do if you suspect your dog has eaten something that contains xylitol.
WebMD: Why is xylitol poisonous to dogs?
Stamper: When a dog eats something that has xylitol in it, the xylitol gets absorbed into its bloodstream really quickly, and it can cause a massive release of a hormone called insulin. This causes the dog’s blood sugar to drop to abnormally low levels, which can be life-threatening.
WebMD: What happens when a dog eats xylitol?
Stamper: Dogs that have hypoglycemia [low blood sugar] tend to start off with vomiting and then they get lethargic. If it’s not treated, it progresses to the point where the dog walks around like it’s uncoordinated or drunk looking. From there the dog can collapse, and then have seizures.
Some dogs have liver involvement, which can occur several hours to days after exposure. Those dogs tend to vomit and they get lethargic, because they just don’t feel well. They also can develop signs like the whites of their eyes turning yellow. Or, if you flip up their lips, the insides of their lips and gums will turn yellow. That’s jaundice.
If their liver is seriously affected, dogs can develop petechiae, which look like little red polka dots. Or, they can develop red blotches on the bare parts of their skin that the owner can see. That’s a sign they’re having bleeding problems. The liver makes a lot of the clotting factors that help clot our blood when we cut or injure ourselves. When the liver stops working properly, it stops making those clotting factors, so the dogs start to bleed. Sometimes it progresses to the point where they’ll bleed from the nose or the mouth, or even from the rectum.
WebMD: How much xylitol does a dog have to eat to get sick?
Stamper: It really depends on the dog’s size and how much of it the dog eats. There’s not one dose that affects all dogs.
WebMD: What should an owner do if they suspect xylitol poisoning?
Stamper: If you suspect that your dog has gotten into xylitol, even if you don’t see any signs right away, consider it a medical emergency and take your dog to the veterinarian. If your veterinarian’s not available, then you need to go to a veterinary emergency clinic, because your dog needs to be examined and then closely monitored for quite a while.
WebMD: What is the treatment for xylitol poisoning?
Stamper: When you take your pet to the veterinarian, the veterinarian is going to do a physical exam. And what they’re seeing will determine whether the dog is treated for low blood sugar or liver issues.
WebMD: What is the outlook for a dog that’s been poisoned?
Stamper: If the dog is showing signs of low blood sugar and doesn’t have any other issues like liver involvement, the outlook is generally good. If the dog has low blood sugar and they’re starting to have some liver problems, the prognosis becomes guarded. The dog will either be able to get well, or it may not get well. And if a dog is showing liver signs — those dogs tend to have a poor outlook.
WebMD: Are there more cases of xylitol poisoning now than in years past?
Stamper: There are more products on the market that have xylitol in them and a lot of people don’t realize it’s there. So more pet owners are finding out about it, and more veterinarians are finding out about it.
WebMD: Is xylitol poisonous to other pets as well?
Stamper: It can be toxic to other species, but the overwhelming majority of reports we get are for dogs. And that’s just because they get themselves into trouble — they get into the food pantry, or they counter surf or get into your purse.
WebMD: How can I prevent my dog from getting xylitol poisoning?
Stamper: Xylitol is found in sugar-free candies, chocolate bars, cough syrups, mouthwashes, toothpastes, children’s and adult’s chewable vitamins, and even nut butters like peanut butter. Peanut butter is especially important for pet owners to recognize, because a lot of pet owners use peanut butter to give their pet medicines every day. Check the label to see if xylitol is in the products you have at home. And if it’s in there, you want to definitely keep those products away from your pets as much as possible. Not all products list xylitol. If you have any doubts whatsoever, contact the manufacturer, just to be on the safe side.