23 March 2009

Xylitol: Sugarless Gum Can Kill Your Dog

Last week Batman ate some Orbit Sweet Mint sugarless gum. The rogue canine taught himself how to pull open the junk drawer.  The top drawer. He pulled out a box of gum from Costco, along with a bag of hinges, instructions for the thermostat, a couple of magic markers, and some pizza coupons. I don't know how many packs of gum were left in the box, but in hindsight, I don't think it could have been many.

Oh. No wonder you look so guilty. Foolish Labradog, how much gum did you eat? Did you learn nothing from that emergency surgery situation? Yeah, that's right, hang your head, I'm talking about the Great Tampon Escapade, not to mention the Toothpick Incident. You'd think that would've cured you from indiscriminately snarfing down whatever you come across.

Well, when you're blowing bubbles out your ass, don't come whining to me.

But then, I thought, I'd better look this up. Just in case. And I was stunned. Orbit has an ingredient called Xylitol, a natural sugar alcohol, first harvested from the bark of birch trees in Finland and found in various fruits, vegetables, berries, even mushrooms. Xylitol has been used in Europe for some time now, but didn't find its way to the US market until about 2003. It's used in sugarless gums, candies, and in some baked goods.

Xylitol is great for humans: it's natural, has no aftertaste, is as sweet as sugar with only 40% of the calories, and studies have proven it actually reduces cavities. Something about the way it interacts with bacteria in the mouth. It's a godsend for diabetics, as it does not require insulin to metabolize, therefore does not impact blood sugar levels. And it tastes great. There are even studies suggesting a possible use in fighting osteoporosis! Great stuff, right? So what's the catch?

The catch, for dog owners, is that it can kill your dog. And it doesn't take much. I was lucky I didn't come home to a dead dog last week, people.

Dogs metabolize Xylitol much differently than we humans do. We process the stuff slowly. Dogs' bodies metabolize it all once. Xylitol tricks the dog's body into dumping massive amounts of insulin into the system, but guess what, there's no actual sugar there for the insulin to act on. The dog's blood sugar levels plummet, and acute hypoglycemia sets in.

Within 30 to 60 minutes, a dog can present with lethargy, ataxia, seizures, and even unconsciousness. Basically a diabetic coma. If it is not addressed quickly, the dog can die.

The other problem dogs face, in addition to the hypoglycemia, is liver failure. This can be accompanied by internal bleeding, due to clotting abnormalities. Even a dog exhibiting few hypoglycemic symptoms can end up with liver damage, or even acute hepatic failure. The liver damage may not manifest until 12 - 48 hours after ingestion, and it can be permanent.

There is no antidote for canine Xylitol poisoning. The acute hypoglycemia can be countered by inducing vomiting if the ingestion is discovered quickly, and/or by administering a dextrose IV solution. However, if the hypoglycemia is not treated quickly, liver damage or failure can follow, and vets are not able to do as much for that.

If you see any of these symptoms in your dog, especially if you suspect your dog may have had access to sugarless gum, candy, or sweets, get your dog to the vet immediately:
  • Weakness or lethargy
  • Pale gums
  • Ataxia (uncoordinated movements)
  • Depression
  • Vomiting or diarrhea
  • Hypokalemia (decreased potassium)
  • Seizures
  • Collapse
  • Unconsciousness
  • Liver dysfunction and/or failure

If discovered quickly, and you're sure about what your dog has ingested, you can induce vomiting using fresh hydrogen peroxide, 1tsp (5cc or 5ml) for each 10 lbs of body weight. (I've done this with Batman before, and it took 4 or 5 tsp. He weighs nearly 70 lbs. I did it with Mason once, it only took 1 tsp.) CALL YOUR VET FIRST: depending on your dog's symptoms, s/he may advise against inducing vomiting to avoid possible aspiration into the lungs, or if more than two hours has passed since the ingestion. Activated charcoal does not effectively absorb Xylitol in the stomach.

After hours, you can call the ASPCA 24-hour emergency poison hotline directly at 1-888-426-4435. They may apply a $60 charge, but you don't have time to waste if your dog has eaten this stuff. If this happens after hours, take your dog to a 24-hour emergency animal hospital. You guys know I don't say that lightly -- I know how much that shit costs.

What happened to Batman? He showed few symptoms, but that is apparently NOT typical. He was lethargic, but not terribly. I paid $160 to have the vet run complete blood work and liver enzymes on him, and tell me he was going to be fine. My vet said a few dogs seem to react more mildly to Xylitol than most. Apparently Batman is one of those few. I feel like he cheated death. I swear that dog has nine lives.

Let me stress, that is not the norm. I read story after story on the Internets about people coming home to dead, unconscious, or seizing dogs. Dogs DIE from this. Not just a few here and there, either. Others are euthanized because the damage to the liver is too severe in the end. Some dogs are under critical care treatment for days or even a week. This is nothing to mess around with, folks. It happens fast, and it doesn't take much. A couple of sticks of some gums can kill a smaller dog. Batman is the exception - extreme illness or death are the normal results. Or maybe he just didn't eat that much? I read about a dog named Copper who died from eating the exact same gum that Batman ate.

By all rights, Batman should've been dead by the time I got home.

Most Americans don't know about Xylitol. Many vets are still unaware of the dangers. The number of cases is rising quickly, as more and more products use Xylitol. If the owner is unaware that Rover got some Tic Tacs from the car, or snatched some gum from an open purse, those incidents get chalked up to an unknown cause, so the number of deaths is probably higher than reported.

For the record, other sweeteners like sorbitol and mannitol are not harmful to dogs. The gum Batman ate had Xylitol listed as "less than 2%", with sorbitol as the first ingredient, and mannitol also listed. Other gums, like Trident, have higher amounts. Orbit made a new line called Orbit Complete, in which the main draw is the high levels of Xylitol. Like I said, it's great for human teeth.

There is pressure on the FDA and manufacturers to use warning labels. The FDA says they're in the business of people, not animals. The manufacturers are afraid people will think the product itself is bad, when actually it's just the way dogs process it. So, no labels yet. Greedyass corporate bastards. Capitalism at its best.

So no cookies, gummy bites, muffins, mints, or gum for Fido. I'm glad we still have Batman. I read a lot of heartbreaking stories about people who lost their animals. Be careful with your canine friends, people.


  1. Oh my gosh...that is crazy! I would have never thought a dog would eat gum tho either. But batman is an exception all the way around.

  2. Scary shit. Thanks for the heads-up...Mac will eat anything and everything so I'll pay close attention to what he get into. Fortunately, he doesn't open drawers and has never taken food from the table or counter. Hims a good boy!

    Glad to hear Batman took it well.

  3. That Batman is going to be the death of you - cause apparently he's immune! Thanks for the warning - I know it is used extensively here and with the new puppies coming at the end of April I'm going to have to start watching for things... like that lovely philodendron that sits on floor level in the front hall.

    Just glad that silly boy didn't have the normal reaction.

  4. Wow! I had absolutely NO idea! We have sugarless gum around all the time. I'll warn all the kids to be extra extra extra careful. Glad your pup is OK and thanks for the heads up!

  5. Sage: Apparently dogs are drawn to the scent, which makes this stuff even more dangerous. I wouldn't have thought a dog would find gum attractive either. Then again ... we all know what Batman will eat.

    Rodger: Batman had never opened a drawer either. A couple of weeks ago, he got the bottom drawer open - potatoes, onions, and a bag of pretzels, which they ate. Onions and potatoes are bad for dogs too, but luckily neither of them were interested. I quit putting pretzels/tortilla chips in that drawer, and didn't think any more about it. He opened that drawer (the bottom one) a couple more times, apparently figured out there was nothing in there of interest any more, and went for the top drawer. I couldn't have been more surprised.

    Willym: Yes, he does keep me spinning, doesn't he? Xylitol is used a lot in Europe. I'm not sure if they do warning labels there, or if people just know to keep it away from dogs. I thought of the puppies! I think there needs to be a major education campaign here in the US.

    E: Me neither! Same with all the 'net stories - most people have no idea. Who would think some gum or candy would be that harmful? I've decided to keep that gum at work now, and buy a different kind for Male Offspring.

  6. PS: Other sweeteners, like sorbitol or mannitol, are OK for dogs. I added that to the post. I've already had a bunch of searches from folks looking for info on this. Makes me wonder if their dogs are OK...

  7. Scary stuff....both Penny and Violet will eat anything...and I mean anything. Steve stopped chewing gum a long time ago and we had tons of the stuff just laying around. I haven't done any research but now i will on...sorry....dogs snacking on clumping cat litter

  8. The only safe sweetener natural of otherwise is STEVIA and it actually helps us physically as well.

    Have a look at this site...

  9. Crap! Who'd have seen that coming?? Glad the big fella is OK!

    I think he just figured he had gone long enough without a crisis and wanted to make sure you were paying attention.

  10. Batman looks so...feral in that picture.

  11. Rosemary -- Cat litter? Well, I shouldn't be surprised. I read a couple of places that they don't know how it affects cats, probably due to the fact that cats, in general, are more discriminating and don't eat anything they come across. But we both know our canine friends could never be described as "discriminating". Batman least of all.

    MC -- I don't know much about Stevia, but have heard good things about it. What tripped me out is that Xylitol is natural. I expected it to be some horrid chemical concoction.

    WM -- haha, please. The only time that dog would look feral is if someone was staring down his dinner bowl. That pic was from last summer at the Giant Dog Park, remember?

  12. Reminds me of the Great Chocolate Candy Incident of '08 with my dog.

  13. mapleaddict13 August, 2009

    I have been through this twice with my dog, and now have a complete moratorium on sugarless gum in the house. We were lucky that he had no long term liver damage. Neither Hershey or Cadbury will disclose the amount of xylitol in their products, but they were both willing to call my vet with the information, which was helpful. Corproations need to step up with warnings.

  14. Great article! I am going to forward this to the guys at Episcopal Bookstore.


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