Article contributed by Elizabeth Wahl (Pietermaritzburg- based Banting Buddies coach)
Living a Banting lifestyle means eliminating as many toxins as possible from our food and environment. We recognise that sugar is one such toxin, and less sugar can mean weight loss, improved health, diabetic control, and reduced tooth decay.
But old habits die hard! The quest for products that can sweeten and cook like sugar is ongoing, and sugar substitutes are big business. Xylitol is one such substitute, occurring naturally in berries, plums, corn, oats, mushrooms and lettuce, among others. Commercially, most xylitol is extracted from corn fibre, birch trees, hardwood trees and other vegetable material.
Xylitol is manufactured into a white powder that looks and tastes similar to sugar. In many countries it has been approved for use in oral care products, pharmaceuticals and as a food additive. Products that may contain xylitol include sugar-free chewing gum, sweets, breath mints, baked goods, cough syrup, children’s chewable vitamins, mouthwash and toothpaste, to list a few.
Although it has been used as a sugar substitute for decades, its popularity has increased dramatically in the last few years. Not only does xylitol offer sweetness without calories, it has antibacterial properties that reduce periodontal disease. Xylitol may also help with osteoporosis and the prevention of ear and throat infections, and reduce the risk of endometriosis, uterine fibroids, and even breast cancer.
Deadly effects of xylitol on dogs
So, xylitol may be a valuable alternative to sugar… if you are a human. If you are a dog, xylitol is potentially lethal. While no one would knowingly allow their pets to consume pure xylitol, it would be so easy for Rover to lick a bowl that had contained muffin mix, or gobble the half-eaten cookies dropped in the garden at your child’s birthday party.
In humans, xylitol is absorbed slowly and has little to no effect on blood sugar or insulin levels. However, in dogs, xylitol is quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and then it acts as a strong, dose-dependent promoter of insulin release. This causes profound hypoglycaemia (low blood sugar). If the hypoglycaemia is severe enough, the animal will die.
In dogs xylitol can also cause severe liver damage, leading to bleeding, liver failure, and death. Similar effects on insulin release are seen in cows, goats, and rabbits. Xylitol’s effect on insulin and blood glucose in cats is not clear at the moment.
How much xylitol is dangerous for dogs
It takes very little xylitol to cause signs of toxicity in dogs. The American SPCA Animal Poison Control Centre has reported that dogs that ingest between 50 and 100 mg/kg should receive decontamination and monitoring. Dogs ingesting greater than 100 mg/kg of xylitol should be considered at risk for hypoglycaemia and should be treated aggressively. At doses exceeding 500 mg/kg, there is risk of liver failure and very serious effects.
Unfortunately, it is often difficult to determine exactly how many grams of xylitol have been ingested. Although the xylitol content is more commonly listed on food products, this is not the case with chewing gums. Many gum manufacturers consider the level of xylitol in their products to be proprietary information and refuse to disclose it on the label. The amount may differ not only from manufacturer to manufacturer, but from flavour to flavour.
Based on information provided by some manufacturers, one piece of gum could cause hypoglycaemia in a 9kg dog.
Remember that xylitol will be present in cakes, biscuits, cookies and jellies at far higher concentrations than in chewing gum. Also, Rover is more likely to have access to and eat such sweet goodies – a treat for us could be fatal to him.
Symptoms of xylitol poisoning
Vomiting is often the first symptom; signs of hypoglycaemia (lethargy, weakness) occur rapidly; and diarrhoea, collapse and seizures may occur. Dogs ingesting xylitol-containing gums may not develop signs of hypoglycaemia until 12 hours later. Dogs developing acute liver failure may not show signs of hypoglycaemia after ingesting xylitol. Not all dogs that ingest xylitol will develop liver failure.
What to do
If you suspect that your dog has eaten xylitol, give it sugar or a sugary syrup immediately to keep the blood sugar up. Take it to the vet where liver enzyme and blood clotting tests can be done. One test is enough, and then another a few weeks later of ALT and ALS mainly. Blood levels of potassium are ideally monitored as well. Elevated blood phosphorus levels often bode poorly.
Sally-Ann Creed’s dog, at 8 months old, ingested some xylitol. This is what she said, “After giving him some sugar and taking him to the vet, I took him into my own care and did loading doses of various nutrients like NAC, SAMe and a few others to restore the damage to his liver. We were told that his liver enzymes were so horrific they would never return to normal ever, the damage was too severe. So I did loading doses every 3 hours throughout the day and night to do damage control, and in doing so, 3 weeks later his liver function was 100% normal – he’s just on 6 years old now! ”
Rather be safe than sorry!
As a responsible Banter and loving pet owner, please do everything in your power to avoid a tragedy. A good option would be to replace xylitol in your home with erythritol or stevia. If that’s not possible make sure that products containing xylitol are stored safely, out of reach of your pets. When you throw away a xylitol container, make sure that your dog cannot retrieve it from the rubbish bag. Do not share any food that may contain xylitol with your pets. Only use pet toothpaste for pets, never human toothpaste. In addition, alert your vet about the possibility of xylitol poisoning and obtain advice about emergency treatments.
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