Florida resident Britani Atkinson was sitting on her porch, catching up with her brother and other family members who’d just arrived for a visit, when her teen son called her cell phone. His urgent message: “You need to come inside and see this.”
Atkinson rushed in to find their 5-year-old yellow Labrador Retriever, Link, lying on the floor next to an enormous container that had been full of sugarless gum just 30 minutes before.
Link acts like an oversized puppy and had stolen the gum off the kitchen counter.
“He’s not the first Lab we’ve had, so we know how to feed him hydrogen peroxide to make him vomit,” she says.
After she fed him a few tablespoons of hydrogen peroxide in the front yard, Link regurgitated copious amounts of gum.
“Then he started shaking,” she recalled. “But I thought maybe he just thought he was going to throw up again and was not looking forward to it.”
Fortunately, a woman saw what was happening from across the street and urged Atkinson to take her dog to the animal hospital immediately. Atkinson resisted, thinking he’d recover soon, though it concerned her when he refused food.
When the dog really started shaking in a sort of half crouch, the passerby called her daughter, a veterinary school student, who said, “If he’s starting to have seizures, you need to go and you need to go right now.”
At this point, Link was lying on the ground and couldn’t get up, so Atkinson’s oldest son carried him to the car. Atkinson hopped in the driver’s seat and as they raced to the animal hospital, Link suffered a massive seizure, shaking and drooling while her daughter sobbed in the backseat with him.
“When we got there, they checked his blood sugar. It should be somewhere between 90 and 100, and it was down to 25,” she said.
The culprit: xylitol (pronounced “ZAI-luh-tall”), a sugar substitute found in many products, including sugarless gum.
Link was hospitalized overnight, and the veterinary team saved his life. The dog didn’t learn a thing – he’s back to his thieving ways – but Atkinson did. They have a “no gum in the house” policy and she shares her harrowing experience with others to try to spread awareness of the danger of xylitol to dogs.
Natalie Marks, DVM, CVJ, veterinarian at Fear Free certified Blum Animal Hospital in Chicago, Illinois, and owner of Marks DVM Consulting, said xylitol toxicity is a huge problem because it can happen so quickly.
“Many times, dogs have ingested xylitol while the pet parents are at work or doing errands and come home to find wrappers or crumbs,” she said. “Because this toxicity can happen so quickly, many patients are missed in the earliest moments and can have a poorer prognosis.”
When dogs consume xylitol, it gets absorbed into the bloodstream very quickly, which triggers release of insulin from the pancreas, according to Dr. Marks.
“Within 10 to 60 minutes, this insulin causes a rapid and sometimes life-threatening drop in blood sugar, called hypoglycemia,” she explains. “This process of insulin release does not happen in humans, which is why it’s much more tolerated.”
Signs can include one or all of the following:
- difficulty walking or standing
Prognosis is good if veterinary teams see patients before they show clinical signs or have mildly low blood sugars, Dr. Marks says. However, in advanced cases involving liver failure, prognosis is poor to guarded.
Treatment of a symptomatic dog involves intravenous dextrose (aka glucose) to try to raise the blood sugar, blood work to see if other levels have been affected, IV fluids to prevent dehydration, medication to support and protect the liver, and other care, she says, emphasizing, “There is no antidote for xylitol toxicity.”
With that in mind, prevention is the best medicine. Read ingredient labels and keep your dog away from any products containing xylitol, which can include types of peanut butter, melatonin, gummy vitamins, mints, gum, toothpaste, mouthwash, ice cream, yogurt, pudding, jam, protein drinks and throat lozenges. (Preventive Vet shares a list of over 700 brand-name products containing xylitol at: https://www.preventivevet.com/xylitol-products-toxic-for-dogs).
Still, accidents happen.
“If a pet parent suspects their dog ingested xylitol, it’s best to, at minimum, call their primary veterinarian or emergency clinic,” Dr. Marks says. “If possible and especially if recommended on the phone, it’s often best to be safe than sorry and see the veterinarian directly.”
Because xylitol is so dangerous to dogs, in September, the American Veterinary Medical Association endorsed federal, bipartisan legislation called the Paws Off Act of 2021, which would require a warning label on products made with xylitol. The proposed legislation is currently being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives (HR 5261).
Additional Resources: Contact the Pet Poison Helpline at 1-855-764-7661 or:
www.petpoisonhelpline.com. NOTE: There is a $65 fee per incident.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.
Award-winning journalist Jen Reeder is former president of the Dog Writers Association of America.
Photo by Britani Atkinson
Published November 15, 2021