What’s in a name? Plenty, it seems

Charlie Powell

A great, and I mean great, old friend sent me a tip for a column based upon a warning.

The white paper message taped to a glass door warned of the presence of xylitol in some peanut butter brands. Many of you may have heard of xylitol and may have heard it is toxic to dogs. Chances are, however, you are not aware of just how toxic it can be.

Xylitol is a naturally occurring type of sugar alcohol. It is found naturally in fruits, vegetables, berries, oats and mushrooms. Today, it is easily synthesized from a form of cellulose and a byproduct of harvesting some trees and corn cobs.

Xylitol tastes sweet, yet does not provide the same amount of calories as regular sugars. It is used as a substitute sweetener in some human products, foods and pharmaceuticals. Table sugar measures about 4 calories per gram and xylitol packs 2.4 grams. As a sweetener, it also does not cause dental disease like more familiar sugars do, nor does it raise blood sugar levels, so it is safer for human diabetics.

Xylitol is a life-threatening toxin in dogs because they metabolize it differently than some other animals and humans. There is a wide margin of safety for human xylitol consumption. But veterinarians have known for almost half a century that dogs can suffer severe hypoglycemia (extremely low blood sugar, less than 60 mg/dL if you are diabetic like me) if they ingest xylitol. It is far more dangerous for dogs than chocolate.

More recently, and probably because of the increased presence of xylitol in our foods and medications, veterinarians have discovered the sweetener can also cause acute hepatic necrosis (death of liver tissue) that results in liver failure and death.

Dogs don’t need to ingest much xylitol to potentially suffer medical problems. The current measure is no more than 0.1 gram per kilogram of body weight. That’s not a lot.

To prevent xylitol toxicity in dogs, first, read the labels on common products (more than 700 at this writing) in your home that may contain xylitol. No list can ever be complete and up to date at all times, but a good start can be found here: bit.ly/2UPY7tZ.

A poster available at the above website shows that about three pieces of chewing gum with xylitol is enough to kill a 10-pound dog.

Keep these products out of reach of your dog or don’t purchase them in the first place. A good rule of thumb is to treat all dogs like one would a toddler in your home. Anything you don’t want them to mouth or swallow should be secured and out of reach at all times.

If you suspect your dog has ingested a product containing xylitol, the message is simple and complete; they should be seen and evaluated by your veterinarian as soon as possible.

This is not a watch-and-see situation like it can be with some things. The danger here is real and time dependent. Try to quickly locate any of the remaining product or packaging and bring it with you to your veterinarian.

A complicating factor with xylitol toxicosis is ingestion of other substances in the home, which can cause similar sets of signs and symptoms in a dog. So help your veterinarian by providing as much information about the incident as you can. Also, make sure anything you leave behind is secured so any other pets or children will not consume the product.

Charlie Powell is the public information officer for the Washington State University College of Veterinary Medicine, which provides this column as a community service. For questions or concerns about animals you’d like to read about, email cpowell@vetmed.wsu.edu.

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