As a dog lover, when I heard xylitol was poison for dogs, I began wondering why this harmless substance is safe for humans but posionous to dogs…
…so I decided to do a little research. I thought I’d share it with you.
What is Xylitol?
Xylitol is a chemical called a sugar alcohol, similar to, but not the same as sugar. Xylitol can be extracted from berries, oats, mushrooms, and birch trees. However, industrially xylitol is extracted from hardwood trees or corncobs.
Xylitol became popular as a sugar replacement in World War II when rationing left sugar in short supply. It’s popularity has waxed and waned since then, but with the exploding problem of diabetes and obesity it has become popular again.
Unique among the sugar replacements, xylitol has anti-bacterial properties. Regular use has been shown to reduce the number of cavities in kids by 1/3. As ND’s we have also seen it useful for clearing gut infections of strep bacteria, and have used it for nasal/sinus infections as well.
Why does xylitol cause problems with dogs?
The primary issue seems to be that xylitol causes a strong insulin response in dogs. This does not happen in humans, where xylitol seems to cause little to no insulin response.
In contrast to other non-nutritive sweeteners like aspartame, sucralose, and stevia, xylitol does have calories, around 50-66% of regular sugar. So when humans eat xylitol they get a little “carb” energy with no or minimal insulin spike = not a problem.
However, in dogs, a little “carb” energy + large insulin spike = severe hypoglycemia (low blood sugar) = very bad times.
Side Note: Xylitol may be beneficial for diabetics
Interestingly in this study of diabetic rats (Ann Nutr Metab. 2012;61(1):57-64. Epub 2012 Jul 20. Effects of xylitol on blood glucose, glucose tolerance, serum insulin and lipid profile in a type 2 diabetes model of rats. Islam MS, Indrajit M.,) adding 10% xylitol water to their diets resulted in:
“After 5 weeks of intervention, food and fluid intake, body weight, blood glucose, serum fructosamine and most of the serum lipids were significantly decreased, and serum insulin concentration and glucose tolerance ability was significantly increased in the XYL [xylitol] group compared to the DBC [diabetic control] group.”
So xylitol might actually have a therapeutic effect in diabetes. Time & more research will tell.
Back to dogs
Most symptoms for xylitol poisoning in dogs appear to be related to hypoglycemia. And it doesn’t take much to cause this. Anything more than 0.1g xylitol / kg dog can cause hypoglycemia. For us Americans, 1 kg is a little over 2 lbs. So a 10lb dog is about 4.5kg. A 100 lb dog, is about 45kg. One typical stick of xylitol chewing gum contains 1 gram of xylitol. So if your little 10lb dog ate 1 stick of xylitol chewing gum they would go into hypoglycemia (the 100 lb dog would have to eat a measly 4 1/2 sticks of gum; that’s sticks of gum NOT whole packets)
Symptoms of hypoglycemia include:
-Ataxia (uncoordinated movements)
-Hypokalemia (decreased potassium)
-Liver dysfunction and/or failure
Then there’s that last one, liver failure. Dogs who consume greater than 0.5g xylitol / kg dog have been seen to go into liver failure (2 1/2 sticks of gum for our little dog, 23 sticks for our big dog). Why does this cause liver failure?
I couldn’t find any definitive explanation for the liver damage. Some seemed to suggest it’s secondary to the severe hypoglycemia, which seems a possibility.
Then there’s this study (Vet Immunol Immunopathol. 2012 Sep 15;149(1-2):108-11. Epub 2012 May 22. Binding affinity of anti-xylitol antibodies to canine hepatic vessels. Imai A, Nishita T, Ichihara N, Shirota K, Orito K.) which showed that: “… examination showed that binding sites for the anti-xylitol antibodies were located in the hepatic arteries and the portal veins…Therefore, binding of anti-xylitol antibodies to the vessels may be the first step in an immune-mediated pathogenic response in xylitol toxicity.”
Is it an immune response (antibodies) against the xylitol that end up attacking the liver? This study suggests it might be. Or could it be both an immune attack and the hypoglycemia together? It would make sense to me.
What do you do if you find your dog in a bag of xylitol?
Treatment typically consists of getting the dog to vomit if the xylitol was consumed recently (to try and limit how much is absorped; you could also try administering activated charcoal though I don’t know how well it would work). You should also take your dog to the vet where they will probably give them IV fluids and dextrose (sugar to bring up their blood sugar) and try to keep them comfortable.
If it were me, I would personally try stuffing in milk thistle and alpha-lipoic acid which have both been shown to be liver protective, especially in cases of poisoning from things like mushrooms. I would give it via IV (if possible) to see if we could save the liver. I have no proof that this would help, but given there’s nothing else that’s available, and both are reasonably safe (ALA needs to be given by IV with some care), I personally would try.
Very, very few vets are likely to have these compounds around though, so your best bet would probably be to contact a local compounding pharmacy and see if they have it or could make it for you ASAP.
Prevention is better than cure
At the end of the day the most important thing you can do is keep xylitol away from your dogs. If you have it in your cupboard keep it out of reach of dogs. If you have xylitol gum or toothpaste, don’t leave them out where dogs can get at them.
Lastly, xylitol does not seem to pose any danger to cats, but might be a problem for ferrets.
I hope you found this useful.
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