TORONTO — Hiccup was a healthy 10-year-old Labrador retriever and a cherished member of the Beaudin family in Winnipeg.
“When you look at him, you’d always be smiling because he looked like he was smiling all the time,” Lynnette Beaudin told CTVNews.ca in a phone interview on Monday. “He was just so easygoing and was so friendly.”
But tragedy struck after Hiccup ate an entire bag of Pür gum, which contained xylitol, a sugar substitute that can be fatally toxic for dogs.
When Beaudin walked into the living room last Friday afternoon, she noticed that Hiccup ate the bag of gum that was on the ground, including the packaging. Beaudin initially didn’t think too much of it as she was unaware that the gum contained an ingredient toxic to dogs, and Hiccup appeared normal.
But minutes later, she noticed that something was wrong.
“He looked drunk. He looked like he was falling over,” she said. “And then he started to look like he was having a seizure or something. He wouldn’t even move. His whole body wouldn’t move. It’s almost like he was stiff.”
The Beaudins rushed Hiccup to an emergency veterinary clinic. Later that night, the vets informed the Beaudins that their beloved lab had serious liver damage and that his condition was rapidly deteriorating. After being told that Hiccup wasn’t likely to survive, the Beaudins made the difficult decision to euthanize him.
Dr. Maggie Brown-Bury, a St. John’s-based veterinarian who represents Newfoundland on the Council of the Canadian Veterinary Medical Association, said when dogs consume xylitol, it triggers a reaction that doesn’t happen in humans.
“In dogs, even a small amount of xylitol induces an exaggerated insulin release,” she told CTVNews.ca over the phone on Tuesday.
This can lead to hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, which can further lead to seizures, coma and liver damage.
“We’re not exactly sure how it causes the liver injury, but the hypoglycemia makes it so dangerous so quickly because that can happen within an hour of eating the product,” Brown-Bury explained.
As little as 30 to 75 milligrams of xylitol per kilogram can result in hypoglycemia in dogs. That means for Hiccup, who weighed 38 kilograms, consuming just 1.14 to 2.85 grams of xylitol can be dangerous. Pür gum contains around one gram of the ingredient per piece, and the whole bag contains 55 pieces.
Brown-Bury says the prognosis for a dog that ingests xylitol is usually good, as long as the dog can be taken to the vet quickly and hasn’t developed liver damage. Veterinarians can administer dextrose, which helps brings the blood sugar levels back to a healthy state.
“If they develop liver damage, it becomes a little bit more uncertain. We have to be really aggressive in our treatment,” she said.
Other products that can have xylitol include peanut butter, breath mints, sugar-free baked goods, chewable vitamins and cough syrup, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Xylitol also has antibacterial properties for humans, and can also be found in toothpaste and mouthwash.
While it’s common knowledge that chocolate is toxic to dogs, Brown-Bury says that xylitol is far more dangerous. Chocolate contains theobromine and caffeine, which are both stimulants, and can cause extremely high heart rates that can lead to seizures and cardiac arrest. However, a xylitol-containing product is far more likely to have a deadly amount of xylitol compared to a deadly amount of theobromine or caffeine in chocolate.
“When it comes to cheap milk chocolate from the dollar store, a large dog has to have quite a lot of that to be a problem,” said Brown-Bury.
Grapes, onions and garlic are also examples of foods that are toxic for dogs, but Brown-Bury says it’s not clear how much a dog would have to eat in order for those foods to be fatal.
“Xylitol is, I would consider sort of the most dangerous thing in your pantry,” she said.
While Pür gum has xylitol listed as an ingredient on the packaging, there are no warnings about how dangerous it can be for dogs, although the Pür Company does mention on its FAQ page online that its products are “NOT pet friendly, especially for dogs.”
In an emailed statement on Thursday, Pür Company business operation manager Ethan Kim referred to the company’s FAQ page and acknowledged that even a small amount of xylitol can lead to hypoglycemia in dogs.
Kim says the company “cares about animals” but did not answer questions about whether it would consider explicitly warning about the dangers of xylitol on its packaging.
Xylitol-containing products, as well as chocolate, typically don’t have any labels warning consumers that the products are dangerous for dogs. Beaudin wants to see that change, and hopes that her story can help spread awareness to dog owners who may not be aware about the dangers of xylitol.
“Just be aware,” Beaudin says to pet owners. “Be informed if there’s xylitol in those products. Either lock them away, or don’t buy them because it’s not worth losing your best friend over this.”