During World War II, sugar became hard to get, so a sugar alcohol called xylitol was used as a substitute. This substance is found naturally in several fruits and vegetables, but is typically extracted from birch trees and corn fiber for commercial use. In the 1970s, xylitol’s many benefits became apparent and the substance increased in popularity. Xylitol has a similar sweetness to regular sugar, but contains 40% fewer calories, making the ingredient ideal for people with a sweet tooth who are attempting to lose weight. In addition, xylitol has a negligible effect on insulin levels in humans, meaning the ingredient can be ingested by diabetics with no adverse reactions. Xylitol also improves dental health, and has been shown to decrease ear and yeast infections. However, while this wonderful ingredient has many advantages for humans, xylitol is dangerous for your pet. Our team at Urgent Pet Care Omaha wants to help protect your pet by providing information on this sweet treat.

Xylitol’s effect on pets

When you ingest xylitol, your insulin levels remain relatively consistent. However, pets metabolize xylitol differently, absorbing the substance rapidly from their gastrointestinal tract, causing their pancreas to respond with a dose-dependent insulin release. This insulin release can be up to seven times the amount released in response to a similar amount of regular sugar, and causes your pet’s blood sugar levels to plummet, resulting in signs that include vomiting, weakness, disorientation, incoordination, seizures, and potentially coma. Signs typically start about 30 minutes after xylitol ingestion, and may last for more than 12 hours, since the substance can remain in the body for a long time.

Liver tissue destruction is another potential consequence of xylitol ingestion in pets. The mechanism leading to liver damage is unclear, but the dose needed to instigate this response is higher than that needed to induce hypoglycemia. However, not all pets who experience liver damage have an initial hypoglycemic response. Signs that include vomiting, lethargy, diarrhea, blood in the stool, and jaundice typically take about 8 to 12 hours to become apparent. Many cases involve clotting abnormalities, leading to internal hemorrhage. Pets who experience acute liver failure after xylitol ingestion have a poor prognosis.

Response if your pet ingests xylitol

If you know or suspect your pet ingested xylitol, steps you should take include:

  • Call a professional — Immediately contact Urgent Pet Care Omaha or Animal Poison Control to get professional advice on how to proceed.
  • Determine dosing — If possible, determine how much xylitol your pet ingested. Every product has varying levels of xylitol, and knowing how much your pet swallowed will help determine the best treatment plan. Have the packaging label on hand when you make the call for professional help.

Treatment for xylitol toxicity in pets

Pets who ingest xylitol doses of more than 0.1 gram per kilogram of body weight are at risk for hypoglycemia, and pets who ingest doses of more than 0.5 g/kg are at risk for acute liver failure. A treatment plan will be determined based on the xylitol dose your pet swallowed. 

  • Hypoglycemic dosage (>0.1 g/kg) — If your pet is conscious and not exhibiting clinical hypoglycemia signs, vomiting will be induced to help remove as much of the xylitol from their system as possible. Their blood will then be monitored every one to two hours for hypoglycemia. If your pet is exhibiting clinical hypoglycemia signs on presentation, or they develop hypoglycemia while being monitored, they will be given an intravenous dextrose solution, to maintain normal blood glucose levels. If your pet’s blood sugar remains stable for 24 hours, they can be released to go home, but their blood sugar and liver enzymes should be monitored daily for the next three days.
  • Acute liver failure dosage (>0.5 g/kg) — If your pet is conscious and not exhibiting clinical signs, vomiting will be induced. An intravenous dextrose solution will be started, and your pet’s blood glucose levels will be monitored every two to four hours. Their liver enzymes and clotting factors will also be closely monitored. Liver protectant medications and antioxidants will be given, to help support the liver tissue, and blood transfusions may be required if clotting abnormalities develop. 

Preventing xylitol toxicity in pets

You can take certain steps to protect your pet from xylitol toxicity.

  • Secure xylitol-containing products — Ensure all products containing xylitol are secured in an area inaccessible to your pet.
  • Check the label — Before giving your pet any food or treat, check the label to ensure xylitol is not an ingredient.
  • Secure guest’s belongings — Many people carry xylitol-containing products, such as sugar-free gum and candy, in their purses or coat pockets, so ensure your guests’ items are in a secure area inaccessible to your pet.

Profound hypoglycemia and acute liver failure can be deadly for your pet, but you can protect them from xylitol toxicity with a few simple precautions. If your pet ingests xylitol, contact our team at Urgent Pet Care Omaha as soon as possible, to ensure they receive prompt veterinary attention.