What’s Sweet For People Can Be Deadly For Dogs

Sharing food with the family dog is very common. Whether we’re tossing scraps from the dinner table, or the dog enjoys “cleaning up” spills and drops young children make, our canine friends often get a taste of what we’re eating. It even helps form a bond between the pet and owner. While sharing small amounts of human food is not usually a problem, it’s important to know that certain food ingredients can be very toxic to your pooch.

Xylitol, also known as birch bark extract, birch sugar, Xylitylgucoside, and Xylatol, is a sugar substitute that is extremely dangerous for dogs, even in small amounts. Xylitol is a naturally occurring compound in the plant fiber of certain berries, fruits and vegetables. Commercially it is harvested from the bark of birch trees, and concentrated Xylitol is used as a sugar substitute in food. That’s because this sweet alternative is a natural product that our bodies metabolize similarly to sugar, but it has a lower glycemic index and far less calories. Many of the foods we enjoy such as jellies, jam, chocolate, syrups and certain brands of peanut butter contain Xylitol. This sugar substitute is also used in gum, mouthwash and oral hygiene products as well. The complete list of products containing Xylitol is actually fairly extensive.

Although humans may enjoy the sweet benefits of Xylitol, it can be a real nightmare for your canine companion. When dogs ingest Xylitol, even in small amounts, it is rapidly absorbed into the blood stream similarly to sugar. The pancreas responds by secreting insulin. Because the cells of a dog’s body are unable to efficiently process the Xylitol, the pancreas continues to produce insulin. This causes the level of “real sugar” (glucose) in the blood to drop to critically low levels in a very short period of time. Since sugar is essential to the function of all cells of the body, especially those in the brain, the rapid decrease can quickly become life threatening. Ingestion of Xylitol can also cause gastrointestinal disturbances and liver toxicity.

Xylitol consumption by a dog should be considered a medical emergency. If symptoms are not recognized right away and immediate action is not taken, pets will typically become lethargic, start developing seizures and eventually they will fall into a coma and die. Treatment for Xylitol poisoning requires intensive therapy involving continuous IV fluids containing dextrose, constant monitoring of blood sugar, and other supportive care measures depending on the symptoms displayed. Treatment may require several days of hospitalization until the danger passes.

Leaving a pack of gum within a dog’s reach or sharing the wrong snack is all it takes to leave your dog fighting for his or her life. The best way to protect your precious pet is prevention. Food that is freshly prepared is generally safe to share. However, anything that comes in a package should be considered suspicious. Read the label and make sure that Xylitol is not an ingredient. If it is, that product deserves the same consideration as any household poison.

We all want the best for our pets and sharing a treat with our dogs is all part of the fun. Now that you are aware of the danger hiding in so many foods, you can avoid potential tragedy. That makes life for you and your dog much, much sweeter.

Originally published April 2017 in the Lake Norman Citizen.

Dr. Tom Hemstreet is a veterinarian with LakeCross Veterinary in Huntersville. The vets in the big yellow house have been treating pets like family for 20 years. For more information, call 704-948-6300.