Xylitol toxicity is a rising threat for pets, especially our canine companions. This little-known ingredient that was once limited to sugar-free gum and candy now can be found in numerous foods and commonly used household products.

Learn where you can find this popular sweetener and recognize toxicity signs, and how you can protect your pet from accidental ingestion with this guide from Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Calder.

What is xylitol and why is it toxic to dogs?

Xylitol—also listed on labels as birch sugar, wood sugar, or birch bark extract—is a natural sweetener originally derived from birch bark but now mass-produced from corncob remnants. Xylitol’s low glycemic index and low calorie content originally made the product a popular sugar substitute for sugar-free sweets, such as gum, candy, and mints. However, additional properties (e.g., anti-bacterial, anti-cavity, and the ability to retain moisture) have led to xylitol’s use in oral care and personal hygiene products.

When a dog ingests xylitol, their pancreas responds by releasing an abundance of insulin, which causes the blood sugar to drop below normal range (i.e., hypoglycemia). For reasons unknown, xylitol ingestion can also damage the liver, and severely affected dogs may experience acute (i.e., sudden) liver failure. 

Are cats susceptible to xylitol toxicity?

Unfortunately, less is known about xylitol toxicity in cats, and few reports of the condition are available. Some research suggests that cats do not experience the same blood sugar-lowering effects as dogs, while other reports speculate that a cat’s discerning appetite protects them from making poor dietary decisions. Because we cannot entirely rule out toxic effects for cats, your Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Calder team recommends taking general precautions and keeping xylitol-containing products out of your cat’s reach.

Where would my dog be exposed to xylitol?

Xylitol is included in various products—and the list grows longer every day—so always read the product label. The most common xylitol-containing products include:

  • Sugar-free gum
  • Sugar-free mints and candy
  • Sugar-free baked goods
  • Gummy or chewable vitamins
  • Toothpaste and mouthwash
  • Flavored medications (e.g., cough syrup, allergy medications)
  • Pudding and gelatin cups
  • Jellies, jams, and nut butters, including peanut butter
  • Personal hygiene products (e.g., moisturizer, shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, and cosmetics)

What’s the toxic dose for xylitol in dogs?

According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, xylitol ingestion quantities greater than 75 to 100 mg/kg (34 to 45 mg/lb) are associated with hypoglycemia, while quantities greater than 500 mg/kg (227 mg/lb) are known to cause severe liver damage. However, because of the difficulty in determining the xylitol amount in a given product—and the quantity can vary significantly between brands and flavors—or the amount consumed, we rely on the pet’s history (i.e., known ingestion) and visible signs when diagnosing toxicity.

Toxicity can be rapid (i.e., 20 minutes after ingestion) or delayed (i.e., 12 to 18 hours), which is the reason pet owners must seek immediate veterinary care for pets with known xylitol ingestion.

What are xylitol toxicity signs in dogs?

Dogs suffering from xylitol toxicity may experience various signs, including:

  • Weakness
  • Lethargy
  • Collapse
  • Tremors or seizures
  • Vomiting
  • Jaundice (i.e., yellow gums and eyes)
  • Coma
  • Unusual bleeding

Once clinical signs appear, your dog must be hospitalized to correct hypoglycemia, control or prevent seizures, and support and monitor liver function. 

Can xylitol toxicity be treated in dogs?

Seek immediate veterinary attention if you know your dog has consumed a xylitol-containing product or if they are experiencing toxicity signs, because rapid intervention can reduce long-term consequences and protect your pet’s liver. Asymptomatic dogs are treated proactively with a combination of decontamination (i.e., induced vomiting), observation, and anti-nausea medication. Dogs with toxicity signs are hospitalized for 24 to 72 hours and placed on intravenous (IV) fluids and dextrose (i.e., a sugar solution used to increase blood sugar). Liver protectant medications may be administered to preserve liver function.

Dogs with mild signs and minimal or no liver changes generally make a full recovery. However, hypoglycemic dogs have a poor prognosis if they do not receive prompt care or have significant liver damage. 

How can I protect my dog from xylitol toxicity?

Xylitol toxicity is completely preventable in your dog or cat if you take these proactive steps:

  • Identify xylitol products in your home — Check food labels and go online to look up product information. Recognizing xylitol-containing products can help ensure you store them out of your pet’s reach.
  • Look for xylitol-free alternatives — When possible, replace these products with xylitol-free brands.
  • Hang bags, lunch boxes, and coats on hooks — These items commonly contain forgotten gum, candy, and xylitol-containing snack foods. Use wall hooks or shelves to keep these items out of pets’ reach.
  • Check all pockets — Check laundry items for gum and candy.
  • Keep supplements and medications in closed containers — Loose capsules, chewables, and gummies are an easy target for curious pets. Keep your next dose in a pill box instead of on the counter or nightstand.

Xylitol is economical and versatile, and will only continue to grow in popularity and use as an ingredient. Dog and cat owners must stay vigilant against this harmful sweetener to prevent a bitter pet health nightmare. For additional information about xylitol toxicosis or any other concern about your pet’s health and safety, contact your trusted southeast Texas veterinary team at Neighborhood Veterinary Centers of Calder.