Xylitol, an increasingly ubiquitous sugar substitute, is found in sugarless gum (e.g., Orbit, Trident, Dentyne), sugarless candy, a granulated form for baking, and even in toothpaste. Xylitol has antibacterial properties in the mouth, thereby reducing bacterial load and periodontal disease. Preliminary studies have shown that xylitol may have other far-reaching benefits to humans as well, such as reducing osteoporosis, helping with endometriosis and fibroids, and helping to prevent ear and throat infections.
In dogs, the effects of xylitol are very different. A dog’s pancreas will recognize xylitol as sugar, causing the pancreas to secrete insulin, which in turn causes a profound drop in blood sugar — a dangerous condition that can eventually turn deadly. And it only takes a small amount of xylitol to cause clinical signs — for a 20-pound dog, ingesting just two pieces of gum containing xylitol can be toxic.
Initial clinical signs of xylitol toxicity are related to low blood sugar: lethargy, weakness, disorientation and collapse. Clinical signs of liver failure usually occur 12-24 hours after xylitol ingestion and can include diarrhea, vomiting, seizures, uncontrolled bleeding and death.
So what should you do if you suspect your dog has ingested xylitol? Although there is no specific antidote to xylitol, seek veterinary care immediately. Your veterinarian will likely induce vomiting and place your dog on IV fluids to increase its blood sugar. Blood work will also likely be performed to monitor liver enzymes, blood sugar and blood clotting times. The best chance for your dog’s survival after ingesting xylitol is to begin supportive care as quickly as possible. So if you suspect xylitol toxicity, don’t hestitate! Get your dog to your veterinarian or emergency animal hospital as quickly as possible.
As a side note, it remains unknown whether xylitol is toxic to cats. There have been some anecdotal reports of xylitol toxicity in ferrets, however.
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