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Ask the Vet - Artificial Sweeteners


Ginger Browne Johnson DVM, CCRP, Veterinarian in Cape Elizabeth, Maine, Ask the Vet article and blog, Artificial Sweeteners, xylitol toxicity in dogs, vet in cape, veterinary article for local newspapers in South Portland, Cape Elizabeth, Scarborough, West End PortlandWhy am I suddenly hearing that peanut butter can be toxic to my dog?

Most pet owners are aware of the foods that can be toxic to animals, like chocolate, onions and grapes, foods that are harmless to most humans and yet deadly for pets. But a less well known and even more dangerous substance, called xylitol, is finding its way into many common foods, like peanut butter and yogurt,  that we often share with our canine companions. Xylitol is a widely used natural sweetener that is potentially life threatening if consumed by dogs or cats, and yet is increasingly found as a primary ingredient in many popular products. According to the Poison Pet Helpline, cases involving xylitol ingestion are increasing rapidly. In 2009, they were consulted on approximately 300 cases, while in 2015, that number increased to 2,800. 

Food companies are starting to use alternative sweeteners in products like peanut butter, yogurt, ketchup, protein bars, bran cereals and ice creams in an effort to lower the sugar per serving. Unfortunately, many of these are foods we love to share with our pets. 

Products labeled as “sugar-free” often contain xylitol, but be aware that some products without that label might still contain this sugar substitute. It is extremely important these days to always carefully read the entire ingredient list on any food before giving it to your dog. 
Xylitol is also called “birch sugar” or it can be listed on the nutritional information as a “sugar alcohol”. Some clues that a product might contain xylitol are if it is labeled “less sugar” or if the ingredient list has the letters “xyl” anywhere in the spelling of items.

For pets, xylitol poisoning is a major problem, according to Ahna Brutlag, DVM, MS, ABT, DABVT, Associate Director of Veterinary Services at Pet Poison Helpline. Brutlag says ingesting xylitol May cause acute hypoglycemia (low blood sugar due to rapid massive insulin release) and/or liver damage. Your pet may have acute weakness, staggering, seizures, collapse and vomiting. “Within 15 to 20 minutes, they might even be comatose,” she adds. At low doses, xylitol has been shown to cause liver damage and at high enough doses pets can even experience complete liver failure leading to death. Interestingly, although it has a similar affect on cats, there have been very few reports of feline poisoning. Perhaps because cats are very particular about what they eat and don’t have a sweet tooth.

To keep your pet safe, look for peanut butters that only have peanuts and salt for ingredients and remember that alternative sweeteners can show up in foods that we don’t even realize have sweeteners added. Always read labels carefully. If a product states ‘artificially sweetened’, assume it contains xylitol and avoid it. Products that most commonly contain xylitol include:

* Peanut Butter
* Toothpaste
* Mouthwash
* Chewing gum
* Baked goods
* Sugar-free candy
* Breath mints
* Fruit drinks
* Jellies and jams
* Cereals
* Puddings and Jello
* Over the counter medicines 
* Over the counter vitamin supplements

Vomiting is often the first symptom of toxicity, while other problems can develop within 48 hours of ingestion. The toxic dose of xylitol for dogs is 0.1 gram or more per kg of body weight. If you think your pet has ingested something containing this or an unknown alternative sweetener, call your vet immediately. The sooner the toxicity is treated, the better!

Written by Robin Elliott


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