Xylitol, which is an ingredient in many common foods, has many benefits for humans. However, this sugar substitute can cause life-threatening issues for your pet. Our team at University Veterinary Hospital wants to help protect your pet by answering some frequently asked questions about xylitol.

Question: What is xylitol?

Answer: Xylitol is a naturally occurring sugar alcohol that is found in many plants, such as berries, plums, corn, oats, mushrooms, lettuce, and trees. For commercial use, xylitol is typically extracted from corn fiber or birch trees. A sugar shortage in World War II led to xylitol’s initial use, and its popularity re-emerged in the 1970s when the sugar substiute’s benefits became evident.

Q: What products contain xylitol?

A: Xylitol is found in a wide variety of products, including sugar-free gum, mints, and candy, toothpaste, mouthwash, baked goods, peanut butter, yogurt, jams and jellies, drink powders, pudding, ketchup, barbecue sauce, and pancake syrup. In addition, xylitol can be found in chewable vitamins and certain medications, particularly those called “meltaways”or “fastmelts.” Xylitol helps products retain moisture, so the ingredient can also be found in products such as deodorants and lip balms.

Q: Why is xylitol so popular?

A: Xylitol has many health benefits for humans, which accounts for its popularity as an ingredient in many products. These benefits include:

  • A low glycemic index (GI) — The GI measures how much specific foods increase blood sugar levels. Xylitol’s GI is about 6 to 7, which is significantly less than sugar’s 60 to 70 GI reading. This makes xylitol an excellent alternative for diabetics.
  • Low calorie — Xylitol has 40% of the calories of sugar, and is a great choice for people trying to lose weight.
  • Dental health benefits — Xylitol reduces the amount of Streptococcus mutans, which is the most common oral bacteria that causes plaque. In addition, xylitol decreases Porphyromomonas gingivalis, which is the bacteria that causes gingivitis.
  • Ear health benefits — Xylitol has been shown to reduce acute otitis media in children at high risk for infection.

Q: Why is xylitol dangerous for my pet?

A: Pets metabolize xylitol differently. They absorb the ingredient rapidly from their gastrointestinal tract, and their pancreas responds by releasing a dose-dependent amount of insulin, which can be as much as seven times the amount released when they ingest regular sugar. This insulin release leads to a profound drop in blood sugar levels, causing hypoglycemia. In addition, xylitol ingestion can cause liver failure in pets, although the exact mechanism of this effect is unknown.

Q: Are cats and dogs affected by xylitol?

A: Dogs seem the most susceptible to xylitol toxicity, but not much information is available on how cats react to the ingredient. Therefore, you should also avoid giving your cat xylitol-containing products.

Q: What are xylitol toxicity signs in pets?

A: Pets experiencing profound hypoglycemia have signs including vomiting, weakness, disorientation, incoordination, tremors, and potentially seizures. Signs typically occur about 30 minutes after ingestion. Signs indicating liver damage take about 8 to 12 hours to manifest, and include lethargy, inappetance, vomiting, and diarrhea. An inability to clot and internal hemorrhaging are often involved. Pets who are affected by liver failure won’t necessarily experience an initial hypoglycemic episode. 

Q: How much xylitol is dangerous for my pet?

A: Approximately 0.1 grams per kilogram of body weight is considered enough to induce a hypoglycemic episode for your pet, and 0.5 g/kg is considered enough to induce liver damage. The amount of xylitol varies widely, depending on the product and flavor, so you will need to read the label of the xylitol-containing product, to find out how much your pet has ingested.

Q: What should I do if my pet eats a xylitol-containing product?

A: If you know or suspect your pet ingested a xylitol-containing product, immediately call University Veterinary Hospital or Animal Poison Control. You will need to provide your pet’s breed, age, and weight, the xylitol amount your pet ingested, and the time of ingestion. If possible, have the packaging on hand, so you can read the exact ingredients and concentrations of the product. 

Q: How do I prevent xylitol toxicity from affecting my pet?

A: You can decrease your pet’s xylitol toxicity risk by taking a few precautions.

  • Read labels carefully — Before offering your pet any food or treat, read the label carefully, to ensure the product doesn’t contain xylitol.
  • Keep xylitol-containing products secure — Ensure any xylitol-containing products are in an area inaccessible to your pet. This includes guests’ purses and coats, which may contain these products.

Xylitol is extremely toxic to pets, especially dogs, but taking a few precautions can lower their risk of being affected by this substance. If your pet ingests a xylitol-containing product, immediately contact our team at University Veterinary Hospital, to learn what you should do to ensure your pet recovers.