Frequently found in sugar-free foodstuffs, this ingredient might not be as friendly to your pup as your waistline. Here's what you need to know.

By Dan Nosowitz
Updated July 16, 2019

If you're a pet owner, this scene may sound familiar: You're cooking dinner or eating a treat and stop to share a few bites with your furry friend. Feeding your dog table scraps might seem like a harmless act, particularly if the food is sugar-free (it's basically health food, right?). But recently, the FDA has issued a warning about a popular sugar substitute that's actually quite dangerous to dogs if they consume it. The substance called xylitol is commonly used as a sweetener in sugar-free foods, and while it can be a nice sugar swap for humans' waistlines, pups can become very ill if they consume too much of it. Here are some of our best tips to keep your dog safe and healthy at home, as well as what to do if you suspect your dog has eaten xylitol.

What is Xylitol?

Xylitol is made from different kinds of plants; it’s found in grasses, trees, and can even be made from rice, wheat, and corn. It’s low-calorie compared to sugar; to get the same amount of sweetness, you’d consume about twice as many calories from sugar as you would from xylitol. Plus, it’s considered almost entirely harmless to humans, tastes pretty good compared with a lot of sugar substitutes, and there’s even some indication (though not proof) that xylitol could be helpful for dental hygiene.

Unlike sugar or stevia, Xylitol isn’t normally sold as a standalone consumer product. Instead, it’s used in the industrial process of making various sugar-free foods, most commonly chewing gum. 

Which Foods Contain Xylitol?

Xylitol isn’t naturally found in dog foods (though very low levels are sometimes used to freshen a dog’s breath). So you don’t need to worry about scouring the ingredient list on a bag of kibble for xylitol. Instead, you have to beware of your dog chowing down on human food that might include it. 

The most common foods, or food-like items, that include xylitol are usually labeled “sugar-free,” like chewing gum, pudding, gelatin desserts, and mints. Xylitol is also common in toothpaste and mouthwash. All of this stuff would only be eaten by your dog by accident. If you’re in the habit of letting your dog eat human food, keep a special watch on products containing xylitol, like these, in the house. 

One important note: Many dog owners use peanut butter as a treat. If you use this pantry staple as a reward (or as a bribe to help your dog take medication), check its label. Some, though not all, types of peanut butter use xylitol as a sweetener. Luckily, xylitol doesn’t really go by other names.

What Happens When a Dog Eats Xylitol?

When a dog eats food containing xylitol, his pancreas releases a bunch of insulin, which causes low blood sugar. Symptoms of low blood sugar in dogs may include vomiting, dizziness—and in severe cases, loss of consciousness and seizures. If consumed in large quantities, xylitol can be fatal for dogs; VCA Animal Hospitals reports that it would take somewhere between 50 and 100 mg of xylitol per pound of the dog’s weight. 

As a side note, cats don’t seem to be at risk; cats do not really like sweet treats, which prevents them from being interested in eating xylitol-sweetened foods.

Related: How to Give a Dog CPR and the Heimlich Manuver

What Should You Do If Your Dog Consumes It?

If you see symptoms of low blood sugar and think your dog might have chomped some toothpaste, the FDA recommends going to a vet or emergency veterinary hospital immediately. Low blood sugar can take a while to show up, so by the time you see symptoms, you have to act quickly

Different products contain different amounts of xylitol; it’s not usually clear exactly how much xylitol is in a given piece of gum, for example. It might take as few as a couple of pieces to induce low blood sugar. So make sure anything containing xylitol is kept safely out of reach of dogs, and check the labels of sugar-free foods before you share them with your pet.

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