Dogs have no business chewing gum. For starters, they can’t even do it right. But your pooch could pay a far steeper price than a few foil wrappers in his duodenum — especially if the gum contains a sweetener called xylitol. Sweetener xylitol is poisonous to dogs
Increasingly popular as a sugar substitute, xylitol is used in gum, toothpaste, mints and candy, as well as in baked goods, both commercial and homemade. Sold in granulated form just like sugar, xylitol is also used in food products marketed to diabetics.
But when dogs ingest it, xylitol triggers a significant release of insulin, which drops blood sugar to dangerously low levels.
“A lot of dogs will vomit, then progress from weak to unsteady on their feet to staggering,” explains veterinarian Eric K. Dunayer, senior toxicologist at the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center in Urbana, Ill., and the co-author of a recent paper on xylitol poisoning.
“We used to think it would happen quickly, within 30 minutes to an hour. But we have seen some cases where it’s taken up to half a day” for the dog to show symptoms, the severest of which can include collapse, seizures and coma.
Long popular in Europe — where veterinarians are aware of its effects on blood sugar in dogs — “xylitol wasn’t used much in this country until four or five years ago,” says Dunayer.
He saw his first dog case in 2002, when only three were reported. Subsequently, reports began to rise sharply, due probably as much to increased awareness as well as an overall increase in xylitol use: There were 20 cases in 2003, 82 in 2004 and 193 in 2005. As of June 1, this year’s tally was 138.
Risk of liver failure
Dunayer says American veterinarians are noticing a serious problem not reported on the other side of the Atlantic: Some dogs progress to liver failure. “The theory is that the xylitol uses up the liver’s energy as it’s being broken down,” causing liver cells to die, says Dunayer.
What is crystal clear is the gloomy prognosis: “More than 60 to 70 percent of dogs that get to that stage of liver failure will die,” Dunayer says.
He adds that it is not clear whether dogs that go into liver failure ingested a larger dose of xylitol, or whether they are just individually more sensitive to the substance.
Interestingly, he says, most of the dogs that developed liver failure did not show early signs and acted normally even 24 to 48 hours after ingesting xylitol.
Thus, a dog that has eaten xylitol — gum is a primary culprit — should be taken to the veterinarian immediately.
What to do
Induced vomiting might be appropriate for dogs that have yet to develop symptoms; offering frequent small meals or oral sugar supplements is another course of action a vet might recommend for a symptom-free dog.
If a veterinarian is unavailable, owners also can call the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at (888) 426-4435. (There is a charge.)
Veterinarians who do not keep up with their professional journals may not even be aware of the dangers of xylitol.
A trigger dose for xylitol has not been established, although Dunayer notes that one third of a piece of gum per pound of dog seems to be a rule of thumb with some brands.
But in others in which xylitol is the primary sweetener, comprising as much as 70 percent of the product, even smaller amounts could trigger a reaction.
Dunayer says the effects of xylitol on cats and ferrets are unknown; there simply has not been any testing. “Rabbits seem resistant to its effects,” he notes.
Four Legged Holidays:
Pet Proof Your Celebration
Christmas is the annual holiday decorating season, with its bright lights and shiny tinsel. Every year, thousands of pets are injured or killed when precautions aren’t taken by their owners. Before the festivities turn tragic, here are some safety tips to pet proof your home and your tree.
What’s your poison?
* The same treats considered harmless for humans could be deadly for pets. Never feed your pet chocolate or alcohol. Both of these are poisonous to your pet and will give them severe indigestion and diarrhea, which can lead to more serious illnesses and even death.
* Always have a sufficient amount of fresh water for your pet. Never let your pet drink Christmas tree water. It could contain fertilizers that make the water toxic for animals. Stagnant tree water is also a breeding ground for bacteria.
* Although poinsettias, mistletoe, ivy and holly berries are the preferred plants of the season; make sure they are put in a place your pet can’t reach. These holiday plants can be deadly to your pet if eaten.
The tree and all its trimmings
* Animals, especially puppies and kittens, have a natural instinct to chew on things. Always make sure any exposed wiring is taped down or hidden as much as possible to prevent electrocution or shock.
* Cats often see trees as fabulous climbing posts. Remember to position your tree somewhere stable. You may want to anchor your tree with some fishing wire to the wall. Besides the obvious aggravations of having to redecorate, a fallen tree can kill or injure your pet.
* When decorating your tree always garnish it with pet-safe items. Loose tinsel around a Christmas tree is a temptation for cats. Tinsel will most likely pass through the digestive tract of your animal, but there is no guarantee that it might not do further damage. So try to make your tree as tinsel-free as possible.
* Glass balls and other ornaments can shatter and the pieces can easily cut paws. Hang the breakable items higher up on the tree.
Traveling for the holidays?
* If you are traveling with your pets this holiday try to make them feel as comfortable as possible. Bring their favorite blanket, their usual food and their much-loved toys.
* If you are staying in a hotel make sure it is a pet-friendly one.
* Always bring any medications your pet may need as well as vaccination records and their license.
* Find out where the closest emergency veterinary clinic is in case of emergencies and have your veterinarian’s number handy, because you never know.
To many of us, our pets are people too. By following these simple tips, you both can celebrate.