Living Columns & Blogs

Sweetener xylitol can be fatal to dogs

Q: I am a dog lover, and I recently caught the tail end of a story on the radio about a family’s pet that died after eating some common household substance or food product. I’d like to know more so I can avoid a similar tragedy with my dogs.

Steve Louis, of Collinsville

A: I won’t sugarcoat this one: For nearly a decade, veterinarians have grown increasingly alarmed about the danger that a sweetener known as xylitol poses to our canine companions.

Even relatively insignificant amounts may cause seizures and other life-threatening crises in dogs within minutes of being consumed. Death can occur within hours or a couple of days. Yet as xylitol became increasingly popular in human products, vets already began noticing a dramatic rise in emergency cases involving the substance 10 years ago.

Still, despite warnings from animal groups and even the Food and Drug Administration in 2011, pets continue to put themselves in life-and-death situations when owners fail to keep the many products with xylitol out of the reach of their pups.

Last spring, for example, the potential peril grabbed national attention again when a Wisconsin family lost a 2-year-old golden retriever that had eaten several pieces of Ice Breakers lemon-flavored gum while its owners were gone.

“She was like our first child,” owner Samantha Caress told reporters at the time. “She was like our family before we even had Grady (her then 7-month-old son).”

But just that quickly Luna was gone because of the devastating impact xylitol can have on a dog’s inner workings. Xylitol is a natural sugar alcohol that is as sweet as table sugar, yet has a third fewer calories, making it a popular choice for many diet products. Research has shown that chewing gum with xylitol leads to fewer dental cavities and may even reduce the number of inner ear infections in children.

Approved by the FDA in 1963, it was not widely used until the turn of the century. Now it can be found not only in gum, but in a growing number of other “sugar-free” products, including candy, baked goods, peanut butter, cough drops, vitamins and toothpastes. As a result, dog owners have to be increasingly vigilant to keep their pets from finding them.

The dangers were noticed almost as soon as the stuff began gaining popularity. In 2004, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animal’s Poison Control Center in Urbana reported dealing with 70 cases. By 2006, the number had more than doubled (170) and it continued to climb from there.

At first, vets didn’t seem to realize the harm xylitol could cause. Since xylitol was deemed safe for human use, it was thought that perhaps only large amounts were needed to hurt the smaller animals.

They soon learned differently, because, as strange as it might sound, xylitol affects dogs differently than humans. In people, the stuff doesn’t seem to affect blood glucose levels. But in just 30 minutes or less, a dog that has ingested xylitol can experience a dramatic surge in insulin, resulting in a precipitous drop in blood sugar levels. The result can be weakness, lethargy, seizures and collapse. Without immediate treatment, brain trauma can result in death.

Worse, it also appears to cause severe liver damage within hours. Back in 2006, the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association noted that of eight dogs that had ingested Xylitol, all eventually died of liver failure.

And it doesn’t take much. It is estimated that as little as 3 grams — roughly the amount found in eight to 10 pieces of some gums — can kill a 65-pound dog. You’d likely need far less for smaller lap dogs.

So if you ever think your dog has eaten anything with xylitol, call your vet immediately. Vomiting may have to be induced and IV fluids started. Of course the best idea is to carefully read all product labels and make sure to keep those with xylitol stored securely — or don’t buy them in the first place. And, of course, don’t give your pet even a crumb of your xylitol-laced muffin no matter how it looks at you with those longing eyes.

Q: I have noticed Andy Banker and Elliot Weiler are no longer on the news. Banker was doing the Channel 11 news but is gone. Is he back doing news on the streets?

P.S., of Carlyle

A: After nearly a decade of fighting for the little guy here as KTVI-FOX2’s consumer reporter, Elliot Weiler is expanding his reach. As of Sept. 30, Weiler moved back to his native East Coast to become associate director of video programming at Consumer Reports, which is based in Yonkers, N.Y.

A Philadelphia native, Weiler attended Franklin and Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa., and was named a Fulbright Scholar to study political communications in Canada. He later earned graduate degrees in political science and journalism from York University in Toronto and Northwestern University in Evanston. Before coming to St. Louis in 2006, he was a consumer reporter at WBRE-TV in Scranton, Pa., where he won two state Best Special Report awards for his investigation into fraudulent Canadian loan scams.

Now, he says, he will be able to help even more people because Consumer Reports distributes its reports to about 100 TV stations nationwide in addition to its ever-increasing online presence.

Millstadt native and Althoff High School grad Andy Banker is keeping his career moving, too. In just the past week or so, Banker and Melanie Moon have been named co-anchors of the 7 p.m. newscast on KPLR-TV Channel 11, which is KTVI’s sister station.

Banker, who will continue his reporting duties as well, takes over for Dan Gray, who, in turn, has replaced Weiler on KTVI’s 11 a.m. and KPLR’s noon newscasts. Shawndrea Thomas, who had been paired with Banker as weekend anchors on KTVI, now is set to go solo.

Today’s trivia

What river is usually thought to be the muddiest in the world?

Answer to Saturday’s trivia: One of the most haunting love songs in musical theater extols not a beautiful woman or handsome man but an alluring island — Bali Hai in “South Pacific.” In reality, that dot of land in the Pacific Ocean wasn’t all that hot. In 1970, novelist James Michener, whose “Tales of the South Pacific” led to the award-winning musical, told the Philadelphia Sunday Bulletin that his fictional Bali Hai was a combination of a “miserable” village on Mono Island and a “steaming, savage island called Aoba,” which is now part of the Republic of Vanuatu. But as a writer, Michener said. he took “the privilege of dressing them up a little ... creating an island of loveliness and imagination named Bali Hai.”

Roger Schlueter: 618-239-2465, @RogerAnswer