While the list of toxic foods for pets may seem to grow every year, knowing what ingredients may harm your dog or cat could save their life. Xylitol, a popular product that shows up in a variety of foods, may not be a household term—but should be—if you live with pets. Cherry Knolls Veterinary Clinic explains what you need to know about this dangerous substance.

What is xylitol?

Xylitol, chemically known as a sugar alcohol, is a naturally derived sweetener from plants like berries, plums, corn, and mushrooms. Manufacturers extract xylitol from these plants, adding the substance to chewing gum, candies, peanut butter, cough syrups, and other products traditionally sweetened with sugar. Some people choose to use xylitol as an alternative to sugar in home-baked goods like muffins, cakes, and breads. Over the last couple of decades, xylitol has increased in popularity because of its preventive dental effects, low glycemic index, and lower calorie content compared with sugar. However, xylitol may be a great option for people watching their sugar intake, but can be extremely harmful to our furry friends, especially dogs. 

Why is xylitol toxic to pets?

Xylitol in dogs leads to dangerously low blood sugar levels shortly after ingestion, because the ingredient is absorbed quickly into the bloodstream, setting off a rapid and hefty dose of insulin, which is responsible for ferrying glucose around the body. Conversely, xylitol does not stimulate insulin release in humans, and is therefore safe for consumption. This hypoglycemic effect occurs quickly, at small doses, and, if left untreated, xylitol toxicity can be life-threatening for dogs. Cases of xylitol leading to liver damage in dogs have been reported, but this is not as well understood. Cats are less likely to experience xylitol’s toxic effects, most likely because of their distaste for sweet human foods. 

What are xylitol toxicity signs in pets?

Xylitol toxicity signs are consistent with those of hypoglycemia, including weakness, incoordination, or vomiting. If liver failure is a concern, tremors or seizures may be present. Signs typically begin 10 to 60 minutes after ingestion. If you suspect your pet has eaten something containing xylitol, don’t wait for signs to appear—contact Cherry Knolls Veterinary Clinic, your nearest 24-hour veterinary emergency center, or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center right away. While no test is available to diagnose xylitol toxicity, a presumptive diagnosis will be made if you believe your pet consumed something containing the ingredient, and blood work results are consistent with hypoglycemia. 

How will my veterinarian treat xylitol toxicity?

Xylitol toxicity needs prompt and aggressive treatment for a favorable outcome to be possible. Once the diagnosis is presumed, your veterinarian will place an intravenous catheter in your pet’s leg, and administer fluids with dextrose (i.e., glucose). While xylitol toxicity has no antidote, treatment typically begins with glucose supplementation and hepatoprotectants (i.e., liver supplements). Depending on when your pet ingested the xylitol, your veterinarian may choose to induce vomiting in your pet to reduce the absorption of additional toxin. Regardless of how much your pet ate and when, hospitalization with fluids and close blood glucose monitoring is usually necessary. 

What is xylitol toxicity prognosis in pets?

If treatment begins before clinical signs develop, the prognosis is generally good. If your pet develops liver failure, the prognosis becomes guarded to poor. The key is to recognize quickly that ingestion occurred, and to seek immediate treatment. 

Can I prevent xylitol toxicity in my pet?

Absolutely! Xylitol is a common ingredient in many packaged foods, and therefore difficult to avoid, but you can easily make the effort to scan the ingredient list. Check the ingredients in your favorite foods, such as snack puddings, gum, and peanut butter—especially if you have a mischievous pet who tends to snoop through backpacks and cabinets looking for a tasty treat. Trust us, you’ll be thankful you made the effort to avoid a dangerous problem like xylitol toxicity. 

If you have further questions about this pet problem or would like more information, contact the veterinary team at Cherry Knolls Veterinary Clinic, or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center, whose call center is available 24/7.