PhotoThe sugar substitute xylitol has been growing in popularity in recent years and is widely used in chewing gum, candy, chewable vitamins, and other products. It's perfectly safe for humans -- but can be toxic for dogs.

Veterinarians say the substance can -- and often does -- cause low blood sugar, seizures, and liver failure in dogs. It's a growing problem, according to the ASPCA, which says its poison control center received more than 3,700 calls in 2014, compared to 82 calls in 2004.

The problem, says VCA Animal Hospitals, is that xylitol is quickly absorbed into a dog's bloodstream, resulting in a potent release of insulin by the pancreas, which can cause severe and potentially fatal hypoglycemia. By contrast, in humans and other primates, xylitol does not cause the sudden release of insulin by the pancreas.

The reaction occurs within 10 to 60 minutes of eating the xylitol and can be life-threatening if not immediately treated.

Sugar-free gum

The most common source of xylitol poisoning that VCA's Pet Poison Helpline gets called about comes from sugar-free gum. With certain brands of gum, only 9 pieces of gum can result in severe hypoglycemia in a 45 pound dog, while 45 pieces would need to be ingested to result in liver failure, VCA said in a posting on its website.

With other common brands of gum (which contain 1 gram per piece of gum), only 2 pieces would result in severe hypoglycemia, while 10 pieces could result in liver failure. 

As in most disease processes, prevention is the best cure, and animal welfare groups are lobbying to have warning labels added to products that contain xylitol.

In the meantime, dog owners should check the labels of all sugar-free products and, if they contain xylitol, be certain to keep them out of reach of dogs, while warning others in the family about the danger.

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