FDA issues xylitol update: It’s not just in chewing gum anymore

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We already knew that xylitol is poisonous to dogs; researchers figured that out back in the 1960s.

When dogs eat xylitol, a popular sugar substitute commonly found in sugarless chewing gum, it’s quickly absorbed into the bloodstream and causes a rapid release of insulin. This insulin spike can cause their blood sugar levels to plummet to dangerous levels, leading to hypoglycemia. Other symptoms of xylitol poisoning include vomiting, decreased activity, staggering, collapse, and seizures. Xylitol isn’t dangerous to humans because it doesn’t stimulate the release of insulin.

But it turns out there’s way more of it out there than we realized—and in a lot more products than just sugarless gum. So many that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) recently issued a xylitol update.

NEWStat reached out to Martine Hartogensis, DVM, a senior veterinarian at the FDA’s Center for Veterinary Medicine to find out why.

NEWStat: What spurred this latest xylitol update?

Martine Hartogensis: The FDA regularly receives emails and adverse event reports from distraught pet owners about xylitol toxicities. One common theme among many of these reports is, “I had no idea xylitol could be so dangerous to my pet.” We wanted to increase awareness among pet owners in much the same way they are now aware about chocolate toxicity. As part of our outreach, we also contacted human healthcare provider groups that may be recommending xylitol products, such as pediatric dentists, or have patients more likely to use xylitol-containing products, such as endocrinologists.

NEWStat: Have we learned anything new about xylitol that we didn’t know before?

MH: Xylitol is becoming more prevalent in food—gums, mints, ice creams, baked goods, even dietary supplements—and drug products, such as mouthwashes and toothpastes. We’ve had cases where owners gave foods containing xylitol to their dogs, not realizing the potential effect, and also countersurfers or backpack-raiders [who] stole them. We want people to be aware of the potential routes that pets can get into these products and that they need to seek veterinary care immediately.

NEWStat: How would you advise veterinary professionals tell their clients about the update without causing unnecessary panic? (For example, “I’ve already have to worry about chocolate; now I’ve got to worry about ice cream?”)

MH: We know that pet owners get information from many different sources, but that the veterinarian is the most reliable and respected one. One of the reasons we opted to do a video was to enable veterinarians to reach pet owners more directly. The video can be played in waiting areas and exam rooms, and also shared on practice social media accounts. Because pet owners may visit their veterinarian as little as one to two times per year, we expanded our outreach to general and social media, as well as human healthcare providers in the hopes of reinforcing the message. Ultimately, we want awareness of xylitol toxicity to be as ubiquitous as chocolate, grapes, and raisins.

Watch the FDA video, Xylitol and Dogs, a Deadly Combination, here.

Photo credit: © iStock/Fly_dragonfly