This sugar substitute is found in many common foods, including gum, toothpaste, and peanut butter—and it can be deadly for dogs.

By Mindy Valcarcel
August 24, 2020
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Emma Darvick

If you’re searching for products with fewer calories, the sugar-free label can be appealing. But xylitol, one popular sugar substitute found in many products that line our pantry shelves, is extremely poisonous to dogs. In order to best protect your pet from xylitol poisoning, it’s important to understand why it’s toxic to dogs, where you’ll find it, and what to do if your dog ingests a product that contains xylitol.

Xylitol’s Harmful Effects in Dogs

“While xylitol is safe for people, dogs are extremely sensitive to it,” says Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, DABT, DABVT, the director of veterinary services at Pet Poison Helpline. Its effect in dogs is a rapid release of insulin, which leads to a life-threatening drop in blood sugar. “In higher doses, xylitol may also cause severe liver damage,” Brutlag says.

What Contains Xylitol?

Brutlag says these products contain xylitol:

  • Chewing gum (typically labeled as sugar-free)
  • Dental/oral care products, including toothpaste, mouthwash, oral rinses, and floss
  • Fast dissolve/rapid melt or chewable medications (especially melatonin)
  • Nasal sprays
  • Low-sugar or low-carbohydrate candies
  • Certain sugar-free foods, including peanut butter, pudding, ice cream, and jam

But that’s not all. Brutlag says it’s sold in the granulated form for use as a table sugar substitute and naturally occurs in low levels in fruits and vegetables. And because it helps retain moisture, it’s also found in personal care products such as face cream, personal lubricants, hair gels, and deodorant. For a full overview of where xylitol can be hiding, Brutlag points to the Pet Poison Hotline’s list of products that contain the substance (hint: it’s everywhere).

Signs of Xylitol Exposure

The effect of xylitol in dogs can be quick after ingestion. “Dogs typically become ill within a few minutes to hours,” Brutlag says. “Initially, they often exhibit signs consistent with low blood sugar such as vomiting, lethargy, weakness, staggering, collapse, and seizures.” 

After the drop in blood sugar, a second phase of effects is associated with liver failure. “You may see unwillingness to eat;  jaundice or a yellowing of the skin, ears, and white of the eyes; extreme malaise; bleeding from the gums (the liver makes blood clotting factors); and death,” Brutlag says.

What to Do If You Expect Exposure

Without quick treatment from a veterinarian, dogs can die from exposure to xylitol, so get in immediate contact with your vet to determine if your dog ingested a toxic dose of xylitol and whether or not it’s safe to induce vomiting at home.

“Unlike chocolate ingestions [where] it’s often safe to induce vomiting at home, this is not always the case for xylitol, mainly because signs come on so quickly,” Brutlag says. “If a dog had low blood sugar, it’s not safe to induce vomiting. Instead, it would be advisable to feed the dog a sugary food and bring it immediately to the veterinary clinic so they can administer glucose intravenously before doing any other treatments.”

The key to effectively treating all toxic exposures is determining how much of the substance a dog consumed. But Brutlag says that companies often don’t list how much xylitol their products contain. “This is why we’ve worked very hard to proactively build and maintain a large internal database containing products and their respective amounts of xylitol so we’re ready to help a pet owner or veterinarian at a moment’s notice,” she says. 

Now that you know the danger, be on the lookout for products that contain xylitol in your house. Talk with your veterinarian for more details on xylitol and how to guard your dogs from it.