Sweet and Deadly

If you’ve been in my office lately, you’ve likely seen the poison on my desk for show and tell. Right there for you to sample, on the edge of my desk. If you’re tempted to take some, I encourage it. It’s a chewing gum that’s Skull and Cross Bonesactually good for your teeth. Sweet little chicklets of poison. But it’s not poisonous for you.

They are sweetened with xylitol, known by dentists the world over to discourage bacterial growth in your mouth, strengthen your enamel, and have no bad effect on your insulin levels, unlike sucrose, regular sugar. A Finnish study even points to a possible osteoporosis benefit.

So, when I pointed it out to Jeanne on Friday, and asked if she knew about its effects in dogs, she was surprised to learn that it was toxic. Her new pup would surely have a very different experience than her young son, if allowed to eat some.

Different Strokes for Different, Umm, Species

I remember well from my days in mixed practice in Wisconsin, some thirty years ago, using a drug to tranquilize horses and cows. The very same drug, xylazine, would do the its good work of temporarily “taking the edge off,” whether I had to do a minor teat surgery on a dairy cow or stitch up a horse who’d run through barbed wire.

But my, oh my, don’t mix up the dosage across species lines! A thousand pound horse might get 5 ml in his vein, and stand still while getting sutured, but a 1200 pound Holstein who’d tromped her teat and couldn’t get her milk out well needed barely ¼ ml to get the same dopey sedation!

One Man’s Meat, Oh Never Mind!

Same thing with metabolizing this sweet called xylitol, a sugar alcohol. Humans do it just fine, dogs don’t.

While we get no apparent blood sugar drop from eating xylitol, dogs can get a life threatening one, with seizures even possible within 30 minutes of ingestion. In addition, acute liver damage occurs in dogs, not in us.

The Dose Makes the Poison

How much consumption is a worry? As with most things, the more that’s consumed, the greater the risk. My gum has 0.72 grams (720 mg) of xylitol in a piece. The toxic dose in dogs is more than 0.1 grams per kilogram of bodyweight. So, that’d be a bit more than a single piece of gum in Jedi, the 17 lb French Bulldog who Jeanne brought in to see me.

And it’s an attractive poison, as it tastes sweet. Some of my patients have been so hungry they’ve been known to eat soap and other non-food things. So, imagine these characters getting into some yummy gum!

Signs to Look For

If your dog has gotten into xylitol sweetened things, you can expect vomiting, within 30 minutes. This can be followed pretty quickly by lethargy, imbalance, collapse, and seizure.

Get to the E.R.!

If you see this, and know the product consumed, grab it and your dog and head for the Emergency Clinic. If you want to try a remedy on the way, bring nux vomica and phosphorus along with you. Have your copilot put a pellet of one or the other on your dog’s tongue on the way in. If no response to the one in 5-10 minutes, change to the second one. I have no experience with either of these in this disease, but they both are prominent remedies for intoxication, collapse, and liver problems.

At the ER, they will administer glucose and liver protective medicines, like silymarin and, if the dose wasn’t too high, will have a chance of saving your hapless dog. There’s usually too rapid an onset of collapse to induce vomiting safely, without risk of inhalation.

Careful Is as Careful Does

So, if you have some of this good-for-you sweetener around your house (check the labels that brag about “Sugar free!”), pay special attention to how you store it and use it. It also comes baked into sugar free cookies and brownies and cupcakes. Read your labels. Mannitol and sorbitol, other sugar alcohols used as sugar substitutes, don’t have the same toxicity to dogs, and are likely to be safe.

Be extra careful if you feed your kids foods made with xylitol. Let’s face it: dogs know an easy mark when they see one! Kids with xylitol sweetened goodies may be no match for a big tongue coming at them, hoping for some yummy licks or bites of cookie.

So, hey, let’s be careful out there in sugar free land.

If you’ve had any experiences with dogs and xylitol, please share them in the comments.

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Comments

  1. joyce casey says:

    I was just about to ask, before I read this, if xylitol would be helpful for my cats’ dental problems – they’re only 6 yrs old, and both have had several necessary extractions in the past year. They eat a combination of canned food (Petguard) and quality dry food.
    Please do include cats when you’re discussing these subjects – thanks!
    Joyce

    • Hi Joyce,

      Yes, the reason this was about dogs specifically is that they are the species with the difficulty with xylitol. Cats are different.

      Now, it’s a different question altogether if xylitol would benefit your cats’ teeth troubles. They are quite different than ours, where xylitol shows some clear benefit. Cats will benefit more from getting on balanced raw diets and adding some small raw bones, like chicken wings. Older cats will be nearly impossible to make the transition, but the youngsters should, perhaps with some strong arming, make it just fine.

      I wrote about this on Quora recently, too: http://www.quora.com/How-do-animals-maintain-healthy-teeth-while-never-brushing-them/answer/Will-Falconer?__snids__=53831160#ans1454342

      • joyce casey says:

        Thanks, Will – since my cats are devoted to their present commercial diet, for starters I’m introducing some finely chopped raw veggies. And I’ll definitely try the raw chicken bones – also sharing your suggestions with friends!
        Joyce

        • You’re welcome, Joyce, and don’t be shy about making the little additions raw meat. These are, after all, the carnivores of the pet world, the small lions you’ve invited into your household. Gradually, as they get a taste for it, you can increase these amounts and then transition to a recipe that’s balanced.

          If any qualms about raw meat, here’s a page that helps: http://alt4animals.com/nutrition_safety.htm

  2. Doria Ragoczy-McPherson says:

    Hi, Doc Will! I have a packet of Virbac Animal Health C.E.T. AquaDent Drinking Water Additive, with pix of a dog & a cat on it, which was recommended to my Kennel Club by a Canine Dentist. It contains Xylitol (3rd ingredient), so of course I wouldn’t use it. But when I brought it to that Canine Dentist’s attention, he just pooh-pooh’ed the whole idea that Xylitol could be harmful to Dogs!!! I couldn’t believe it! Neither could my fellow KC members, who also knew about Xylitol! He escaped with his hide intact, convincing most of the KC that they were wrong, and that they “must have misinterpreted” something they’d read!
    Still shaking head in disbelief……….Doria

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