Recently, Longs Peak Animal Hospital has seen several cases of dogs experiencing toxicity from a substance called xylitol, and its effects can be life-threatening. Xylitol is a common sugar substitute found in many different food (and non-food) items from sugar-free gum and candy, to artificial sweetener for baking, to nut butters and vitamins and supplements. While it does not appear to have adverse effects in humans, dogs can experience toxic effects, even at seemingly low doses. To date, cats do not appear to be affected in the same way as dogs.
Xylitol is one of several common “sugar alcohols”. In dogs, it causes a massive release of insulin from the pancreas, which leads to a precipitous drop in blood sugar. If blood sugar becomes too low, a condition called hypoglycemia will develop, and may lead to weakness, lethargy, seizures, and death. Xylitol can also cause damage to the dog’s liver, known as acute liver necrosis. While liver necrosis is thought to occur at higher levels of intoxication, the exact level at which this occurs and the mechanism itself is unknown.
There is no known antidote for xylitol toxicity; treatment centers on supportive care. Treatment for xylitol ingestion may include induction of vomiting for recent ingestions, as long as the patient is conscious, followed by hospitalization for close monitoring of blood glucose values, glucose supplementation, and IV fluid administration as needed. Some patients may experience hypoglycemia for up to 72 hours after ingestion. Additionally, blood tests are performed periodically for at least 72 hours to assess liver health, and special medications for liver protection may be indicated.
The key to successful treatment of xylitol ingestion is early and aggressive intervention. If you suspect your dog may have ingested even as little as 1 to 2 sticks of gum containing xylitol, do not hesitate to seek immediate treatment.
- Kristin Hrenchir, DVM