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Not So Sweet: Sugar Substitute Caution

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Image Credit: Steven L.

Not So Sweet: Lethal Sugar Substitute, Caution

Of the many common sugar substitutes, Xylitol appears to be the only one dangerous and potentially lethal to dogs; it is a more potent toxin to dogs than chocolate, yet many owners are unaware of the serious risk xylitol ingestion poses to their dog. Though not toxic to humans, a dog experiences severe illness often occurring within the first half hour following ingestion. It should not take your dog long to express symptoms of illness, so you should act fast once you suspect that they’re ill.

What happens if my dog eats or drinks a product that has Xylitol?

Xylitol interrupts blood glucose level regulation, which in a healthy dog is otherwise very tightly controlled. Following the rapid absorption of the toxin, blood glucose levels fall to dangerously low levels (hypoglycemia). In cases of high dose ingestion, severe liver damage occurs and, without intense treatment, liver failure. Systemic consequences from complete liver failure results in internal hemorrhage and death. Signs and symptoms of liver damage may take a day or two to develop during which time a dog may or may not experience all of the previous symptoms of hypoglycemia.

So what?

Glucose is the energy source for the body, so when levels drop too low, organs stop working correctly.

How will I know?

Weakness, collapse, vomiting, and seizures are the first symptoms.

Then why is Xylitol used?

Xylitol is a synthetic substance used for its sweet taste to add flavor to many everyday snacks, oral hygiene products, and pharmaceuticals. It was developed for use as a low calorie alternative to sugar.

When should I take my dog in?

Do not wait for symptoms. Immediate treatment is needed after ingestion. Consumption of any xylitol-containing product should be considered highly dangerous. The amount per serving is often not available on the label of products, and potency makes a low dose still very dangerous.

As with other toxic ingestions, please make note of the brand and approximate amount of the product ingested. The poison control hotline listed at the end of this article can help anytime a dog ingests a potentially toxic substance. This call is a paid consultation with an veterinary toxicologist, and care suggestions will be helpful to you and your vet in determining the level of care needed for your pet. Your regular vet will be able to communicate with the specialist once an initial consult has been established and a case number is assigned.

What will help the vet help my dog?

  • name of the product
  • amount ingested (example: number of pills, quantity of fluid, etc.)
  • time of ingestion

How will my pet be fixed?

Unfortunately, there is no antidote; treatment is based on symptoms. As with other potential poisons, the sooner veterinary care is sought after exposure, the better. Most treatment options are time sensitive. Possible induction of emesis (vomiting) may be done depending on the time of ingestion. Hospitalization with IV fluids and blood work are usually needed to stabilize blood sugar levels and electrolytes. If liver failure develops, the prognosis is poor.

How can I protect my pets?

Cats are of less concern for ingestion of xylitol because cats do not prefer the sweet tasting substance. Unfortunately, many dogs appear to have a sweet tooth and over-indulge when a sweet treat is found. Xylitol is common sugar substitute used in “low calorie” or “diet” human foods including peanut butter, bread, candy, baked goods, and sometimes diabetics rely on the sweetener. Xylitol appears to have some anti-cavity affects making it a common ingredient in oral care products like toothpaste, mouthwash, gum and mints. Please read food and medication ingredient lists before giving human products to pets. Sugar substitutes other than xylitol have not been found to be poisonous to dogs.

Patients with a current registered microchip with HomeAgain have free access to ASPCA poison control consults. The annual membership fee covers consults with the toxicologist and provides assistance in returning lost dogs to Owners. ASPCA also offers pet insurance available to purchase for both routine and emergency care for your pets. Visit the APSCA website or HomeAgain website for further information.


Amanda Burow, D.V.M. (Dr. B), is a graduate of Iowa State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine. Dr. Burow’s patient list includes hunting dogs of all varieties, as well as several field trial dogs and full time sporting guide dogs. In addition to practicing general veterinary medicine, she has special interest in the areas of preventive care, emergency medicine, and dermatology. In her spare time, she enjoys being outdoors and on the lake, staying active, reading, and spending time with family and friends.

Mud River is proud to share these tips from Dr. B with our customers. Keep in mind it is best to work with your local veterinarian to determine the needs for your animals.