Xylitol is a sugar alcohol -- an artificial sweetener created from birch, raspberries, plums and corn.1 This sweetener is found in many human "sugar free" products, such as gum, candies and other sweets. In humans, high doses may have a mild laxative effect, but in dogs, ingestion could be fatal.
It has been known for quite some time that there is a link between xylitol ingestion and hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) in dogs. Now, with the prevalence of this sweeter in human foods, the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center has noted a connection between xylitol consumption and acute toxicity in dogs (PDF). Xylitol has also been suspected of causing toxicity in ferrets2.
Signs of toxicity can be seen as quickly as 30 minutes after xylitol ingestion in dogs. The xylitol causes a rapid release of the hormone insulin, causing a sudden decrease in blood glucose. This in turn may cause the following symptoms:
- Ataxia (uncoordinated movements)
- Hypokalemia (decreased potassium)
- Liver dysfunction and/or failure
Xylitol is found in many products
The most common xylitol item is sugar-free gum. Gum can be found everywhere, and is often tempting to dogs. Keep gum out of reach - watch out for open pockets, purses, counter tops, and in the car. Xylitol can also be found in sugar-free (low carb and diabetic) candies, baked goods, some pharmaceuticals and many dental products, including mouthwashes, mints and toothpastes. Only use pet toothpaste for pets, never human toothpaste.
My pet may have eating a product containing xylitol
If you suspect that your pet has eaten a xylitol-containing sweet or food, please contact your veterinarian or Animal Poison Control Center immediately.
If is soon after ingestion (before clinical signs develop), your vet may advise inducing vomiting to expel the xylitol item(s). Veterinary treatment involves close monitoring, supportive care and treating the resultant low blood glucose and possible low potassium levels.
The toxicity of xylitol for cats and other species is not documented at this time, although there has been some concern that ferrets may react to xylitol in a similar manner as dogs.
Related Reading and Resources:
Hypoglycemia following canine ingestion of xylitol-containing gum
Abstract: Journal of Human and Veterinary Toxicology
Raisin and Grape Toxicity
By Janet Tobiassen Crosby DVM, Guide to Veterinary Medicine at About.com
1Xylitol information from Wikipedia
2Man claims sugarless gum to blame for pet ferret's death
From WKYC-TV, Cleveland Ohio
Photo: Sugar Dog Loves Me by D Sharon Pruitt on Flickr