Xylitol Toxicity in Dogs: Why You Need To Know About It NOW

Dr. Patty Khuly

 As you might imagine, I receive lots of letters and emails about pets and their specific healthcare issues and I do my best to help out wherever I can. But, every so often, I’ll receive a letter from a pet owner that helps me too.

Typically, this happens when an owner’s pet healthcare experience allows me to see the world of veterinary medicine just a little differently –– that is, more through a pet caretaker’s eyes and less via a veterinarian’s less-than-fresh perspective.

This morning I received a perfect example of this kind of missive. Here it is, in its entirety (with names changed out of respect for their privacy):

“My 9 year-old mixed breed dog, Elizabeth, ate 30 pieces of Ice Breaker Ice Cube gum on Christmas Eve. She vomited 3 or 4 times during the night and then pooped large gummy amounts in the house on Christmas morning.

I rushed her to the 24 hour vet hospital and she received, for 2 days, IV fluids and liver protectant/supportive meds. Her liver enzymes were extremely high when admitted and had dropped by nearly half when she left the hospital, but are still high.

I am furious at myself for not being more careful with my daughter's gum and for not knowing about the dangers of xylitol. I have contacted Hershey's, the manufacturer of the gum, complaining about the lack of a simple warning label on their product.

Every friend I know who owns a dog was unaware of xylitol and its toxicity to dogs. I am planning on taking this information to the national media so that other dog owners, like me and my friends, will avoid products that contain xylitol.

Elizabeth has probably suffered extensive, possibly permanent, liver damage from xylitol. For her, I'm going to find a way to force Hershey's, Wrigley's, and Kraft Foods to admit that they could easily put a warning on their gum and save the health and lives of countless dogs by doing this. E-mail back with any further help, if you could. Thanks.”

What a scary story, right? And the most terrifying part, from my veterinarian’s POV, is this telling line: “Every friend I know who owns a dog was unaware of xylitol and its toxicity to dogs.”

Which resonates with my personal experience as a veterinarian. In my practice here in Miami, perhaps eighty or ninety percent of my clients have never even heard the word xylitol. Though we keep a poster with “foods your pets shouldn’t eat” in the waiting room (and xylitol is on its list), few clients have time to read past the “raisins and grapes” portion before they’re called in to the exam room.

Most of them may have heard their pets shouldn’t eat certain sweets, but they’re not really sure why. They don’t know what every veterinarian knows; that these products contain the extremely dog-toxic sugar substitute known as xylitol.

Xylitol is a naturally sweet extract from the birch tree that, unfortunately, causes vomiting, severe hypoglycemia, and liver failure –– even when surprisingly tiny quantities are inadvertently ingested by sweet-toothed dogs. Here’s a great article I just wrote up on xylitol toxicity for Embrace Pet Insurance’s Medical Condition Library.

Now, this wouldn’t be so scary if xylitol was hard to come by. But, since it’s an increasingly common ingredient in consumer products (such as gums, mints, candies, toothpaste, flavored vitamins, and plenty of sugar-free desserts), it’s not. Indeed, xylitol is used to sweeten lots of stuff you probably have floating around your house, your car, your purse, or back pocket.

What’s more, xylitol is also used in sugar-free syrups that serve as vehicle for some veterinary-prescribed children’s elixirs. (We’ll sometimes enlist these when pets won’t take pills or they’re too tiny for the higher doses pills contain.)

Because even pharmacists aren’t aware that xylitol is toxic to dogs, veterinarians have to pay attention whenever we prescribe these elixirs and write “NO SUBSTITUTIONS” in big letters on the prescription pad. It’s a big deal. So what’s a concerned veterinarian to do?

In my case, I’ve written articles. Here are a few:

Among others …

But it’s clearly not enough. It wasn’t enough for Elizabeth, was it?

While I understand that it’s a veterinarian’s responsibility to inform and a dog owner’s to keep their dogs out of harm’s way, there’s more than a little corporate responsibility to contend with here too.

I don’t know what the solution is, but as I wrote in my last post on this subject (for USA Today), “Now, I'm not necessarily one for mandatory labeling, nor would I press for the extinction of any safe and effective human product. Still, here's one area where corporate responsibility is clearly lacking. They may be just animals, but they are, after all, family.” 

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