A common ingredient in sugar-free products like chewing gum and breath mints is safe for human consumption but toxic to dogs. Labeled as “xylitol” within the ingredients list for most products, the same plant-derived substance can also be identified as “birch sugar” or “birch sap” in others, an important distinction for pet owners to make when screening a product to determine if it is safe for pets.

“This is tricky for us as pet owners, because if we know ‘xylitol’ but not ‘birch sugar,’ we won’t be looking for it,” said Dr. Camille Torres-Henderson, a veterinary nutritionist at Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “And just one product is enough to make a dog sick.”

While xylitol is particularly poisonous to dogs, it can also cause adverse effects in cats and ferrets, so it’s best to keep any products containing xylitol out of reach of all pets. If your pet is notorious for getting into spaces where you store these products – for example, if you keep sugarless gum in your backpack or purse – be sure to make them inaccessible.

“Dogs are more susceptible because they have more sweet receptors in their tastebuds, so they’re generally more interested in products containing xylitol,” Torres-Henderson said. “Even though cats can’t taste sweet as well as dogs can, they’re still at risk.”

“Sugar free” is suspect

Commonly used as a sugar substitute, xylitol is a sweetener found in products like:

  • Chewing gum
  • Candy
  • Ice cream
  • Dietary supplements (like chewable or gummy vitamins)
  • Liquid compounded medications (like liquid gabapentin)
  • Mouthwash
  • Sugar-free desserts
  • Breath mints
  • Peanut butter

Keep an eye out for any product labeled “sugar free” or “diabetic friendly.” Xylitol is also a common sweetener used in liquid compounded medications parents might be prescribed for their child. While human pharmacists are becoming more educated about the toxicity to dogs, parents who are also pet owners should be aware that this is another potential product in which xylitol can be found.

What to do if your pet consumes xylitol

Signs of xylitol toxicity include vomiting, weakness, collapse, seizures, or uncoordinated gait. When a product containing xylitol is consumed by a dog, it is rapidly absorbed, causing insulin to be released from the pancreas and blood glucose levels can drop very low. Low blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia, is life threatening and requires immediate treatment. Depending on the amount consumed, xylitol can also damage the liver, but these signs may be delayed for several days.

If xylitol toxicity is suspected or you know your pet ingested a product with xylitol in it, seek immediate veterinary care. If you’re unsure if a product your dog consumed contains xylitol or birch sugar, save the product packaging with the ingredient list to provide to the veterinary care team. Treatment involves monitoring and to ensure blood glucose levels and liver activity remain normal, and support as needed in case of low blood sugar and/or liver failure.

“Most of the cases we see here are owners who saw their dog chomping on some chewing gum, and they rushed them right into urgent care,” said Dr. Amanda Cavanagh, an emergency care veterinarian at the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital. “If the dog isn’t symptomatic when they come to us, we can make them vomit up the gum, then monitor for low blood sugar and liver failure.”

Even though most owners seem to be aware of the dangers of xylitol – and bring their pets in when they suspect they may have consumed it – “birch sugar” and “birch sap” are less familiar terms with which all pet owners should be familiarizing themselves. Prevent xylitol ingestion by checking ingredient lists, keeping xylitol-containing products out of reach, and educating the entire family on keeping these items away from the family pet.