Xylitol (i.e., birch sugar) is a popular sugar substitute used in many foods and products. While many people have reaped xylitol’s benefits—40% fewer calories than cane sugar—if your dog ingests this natural sugar substitute, they can have a severely toxic reaction. Our Southwest Vet team takes a deep dive into this potentially deadly ingredient. Learn why xylitol is so harmful to dogs, the common products that contain the ingredient, and how to identify and treat your pup’s xylitol toxicity. 

Why is xylitol only safe for people, but not for their dogs?

Xylitol is sugar alcohol extracted from birch bark. Food manufacturers commonly use this sugar substitute in their products intended for human consumption, labeling them as sugar-free. Although xylitol naturally occurs in many fruits and vegetables, the ingredient is mainly processed from corn fiber or birch trees. While xylitol looks and tastes like sugar, the ingredient contains 40% fewer calories than cane sugar and doesn’t raise blood glucose levels, which explains why this sugar substitute has become increasingly popular over the past decade. In addition to being low calorie, xylitol offers people the following benefits:

  • Supports blood glucose and insulin levels — Because the body absorbs xylitol more slowly, diabetics sometimes use this sugar substitute to help prevent their blood glucose levels from fluctuating as they do with regular sugar.  
  • Helps prevent tooth decay — Xylitol helps prevent tooth decay and cavities. Many dental hygiene products, such as toothpaste and mouthwash, are sweetened with xylitol.
  • Reduces ear infections — A study performed in children with recurring ear infections demonstrated that daily use of xylitol-sweetened chewing gum reduced their infection rate by 40%.

Why is xylitol harmful to dogs?

The insulin released from a person’s or animal’s pancreas controls their blood sugar level. While xylitol does not stimulate a person’s insulin release, when a dog eats xylitol, their bloodstream quickly absorbs this sugar substitute, and their pancreas rapidly releases insulin. The result is a profound drop in blood glucose (i.e. hypoglycemia), which can be life-threatening. In addition to hypoglycemia, xylitol can also cause liver failure. 

Is xylitol harmful to cats?

Less is known about xylitol toxicity in cats. However, this sugar substitute does not appear to cause the same toxicity in cats as it does in dogs. Cats do not have the receptors (i.e., taste buds) to detect sweetness, so they find sweet-tasting foods less appealing, which may explain why they are less affected. Regardless, because xylitol’s toxic effects on cats can’t be entirely ruled out, you should keep xylitol-containing products out of all of your pets’ reach. 

What xylitol-containing products should I prevent my dog from accessing?

Xylitol is not only used in products that are labeled as being sugar-free. This ingredient is used in a variety of products, including

  • Sugar-free foods — Baked goods, gums, mints,  peanut butters, and ice creams
  • Dental products —  Toothpastes and mouthwashes
  • Vitamins and supplements — Chewable or gummy vitamins, and supplements
  • Personal hygiene products — Deodorants, hair care products, and cosmetics

Because xylitol is present in so many items, read all product labels carefully before offering your pet any food or treat. In addition, ensure you securely store all xylitol-containing products out of your pet’s reach. 

What are the signs of xylitol toxicity in dogs?

If you don’t catch your dog in the act of gobbling down a food or product that contains xylitol, you may not even know your mischievous pal ingested this toxin. However, you may strongly suspect your dog has been poisoned if they show these common xylitol toxicity signs, which are usually related to hypoglycemia:

  • Vomiting  
  • Incoordination 
  • Weakness
  • Stumbling
  • Lethargy
  • Seizures  
  • Collapse
  • Coma

These signs can appear as quickly as 30 minutes after your dog has ingested xylitol, but they may not appear for up to 12 hours after ingestion. If you suspect your dog has eaten xylitol, immediately contact our veterinary team, or call the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASCPA) Animal Poison Control Center for prompt guidance. If the ASPCA pet toxicity expert advises you to seek veterinary care for your furry pal, bring any product packaging to the appointment, so the attending veterinarian can learn the specific ingredients of the product your pet has ingested. 

How is xylitol toxicity treated in dogs?

Immediate veterinary care greatly improves a pet’s prognosis, and dogs who are treated quickly for xylitol toxicity usually recover fully. Our veterinarians may induce vomiting if the ingestion occurred within a specific timeframe before your pet’s appointment. However, unless directed by a veterinarian, never induce your dog to vomit. 

Your pet may need an extended hospital stay for emergency care and continued observation. During this time, our veterinarians will perform blood tests to monitor your dog for changes in blood sugar, organ function, and electrolytes. Unfortunately, a dog who does not receive immediate veterinary treatment or who has ingested a large amount of xylitol, which has affected their liver, has a poor prognosis,

If your pet ingests a food or product that contains xylitol, they can experience severe toxicity. To avoid this scenario, read all product labels and keep xylitol-containing foods and products out of your pet’s reach. If you suspect your pet has ingested xylitol, contact our Southwest Vet team or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.