Confections of a Dangerous Kind: Xylitol

Xylitol does the sugar-impersonating bit too well

Published: February 08, 2016

Lately, it seems like sugar has become the new smoking.

Used to be you could sprinkle a little sugar in your coffee or pour some syrup on your pancakes without so much as a twinge of guilt, but nowadays the zeitgeist has shifted to the point that I am seriously afraid that my MD will ride into my kitchen on a blazing white steed of righteous anger, nostrils flaring in a fit of orthorexia, and knock poor Mrs. Butterworth right out of my hands.

So what has replaced the fine white crystals of sugary goodness that we used to sprinkle with such abandon?

Obviously, saccharine is out. If you so much as think of one molecule of saccharine, you and everyone you know will instantly turn into a giant, cancerous can of Tab.

Splenda and stevia are only used by people who smell faintly of patchouli, so there’s no need to concern ourselves there.

That leaves us with one humble sugar substitute with the sci-fi villain name of xylitol. (“By Grabthar’s Hammer, Xylitol, put down the phase-plasma rifle!”) And villain it may very well be – not for you, but for your dog.

I don’t want to start a Swiffer-level consumer panic (Swiffers are just fine for your dog) but xylitol is potentially deadly poison for your dog, and it’s in more places than you might think. In fact, right this very minute, you probably have a deadly pet poison in your purse, pantry, or pocket.

What the heck is xylitol?

Often confused with the Aztec god of fertility and disembowelment Xachtihuatl, xylitol is an artificial sweetener. I asked my good friend and impeachable knowledge resource Dr. W. Ikipedia about xylitol and here’s what she said.

Xylitol is categorized as a polyalcohol or sugar alcohol (alditol). It has the formula CH2OH(CHOH)3CH2OH and is an achiral isomer of pentane-1,2,3,4,5-pentol. 

Sugar alcohol? Like Zima?

Not hardly.

What does it do to dogs?

Well, if you sacrifice three virgins to it during a new moon, your maize crops will be a-maize-ing! Ooops – sorry, that’s Xachtihuatl. Xylitol is a stand-in for sugar, and dogs most frequently come into contact with it when they root around in your purse or junk drawer and eat your sugar-free gum. I’ve treated a few cases of xylitol poisoning in the veterinary ER and all of them came from gum exposure. And, luckily, all the cases have done just fine with a day or two in the hospital and close monitoring.

It seems that xylitol does the sugar-impersonating bit just a little too well, and convinces the body that it has just hit the sugary jackpot and ingested real, actual sugar. This causes a massive release of insulin from the pancreas, which in turn lowers blood sugar to dangerous levels. A dog’s brain (and yours, too) relies on a steady stream of sugar to do its brain-thing, so when blood levels of sugar drop, dog brains get a mite peevish and awful things happen like seizures, comas and deaths – sometimes, even in that order.

Along with the blood sugar lowering effects, xylitol can cause liver damage, so bloodwork is always part of the package when treating one of these cases. Follow-up blood tests and treatments may be needed based on your dog and the degree of exposure.

To treat xylitol poisoning, we usually admit these dogs and cats to the hospital (it’s almost always dogs – cats are too busy plotting to take over the planet to bother with humdrum stuff like ingesting gum). Monitoring blood sugar and supplementing through IV fluids to keep sugar in the safe range is the mainstay of treatment. Most cases are in and out of the hospital in two days.

In addition to sugar-free gum, xylitol is found in lots of other sugar-free items – best to go through your pantry and check the labels, especially if you feed your dog any people food (a practice best avoided in most cases). Recently, it’s even been found in several types of peanut butter, which is a common thing that folks use to give dogs their pills and medicine and also use as a treat for good behavior.

If you think your dog may have ingested xylitol, first call your vet or local veterinary ER. Animal-specific poison control centers (info below) can also help you determine the best course of action, and help your vet with treatment and management of xylitol ingestion.

Animal-specific poison control centers:

  • The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC): 888-426-4435 ($65 consultation fee)
  • Pet Poison Helpline: 855-764-7661 ($49 consultation fee)

So, avoid the machinations of an angry and vengeful Aztec deity – check your house and pantry for xylitol and keep your dog safe from the poison du jour.

1 Comment

Dianne Beal
October 27, 2018

That was Awesome!!  Thanks for the chuckle along with some good information for clients.

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