Perhaps because of widespread weight and nutritional issues in the human population, sweeteners have become a pretty big business. One of the most promising is xylitol (pronounce this “zile-it-all”), because it is a naturally occurring, sugar-like substance that can be safely consumed by diabetics. It has several other appealing qualities.

In terms of human health, xylitol seems almost too good to be true. It tastes just like table sugar but contains 40% less calories and has only 10% of the impact on your blood glucose level, making it perfect for people with diabetes. It chokes off the metabolic processes of plaque bacteria, thus exerting a protective effect against cavities and periodontal disease. Xylitol can similarly impact ear infections, sinusitis, and yeast infections without any of the negative effects brought forth by antibiotic use. It’s also being investigated for positive effects on osteoporosis, skin elasticity (i.e., anti-aging), intestinal health, and even shrinking that onerous belly fat.

Xylitol is a very efficient killer of dogs, though. If you live with a dog, please get in the habit of checking your products for this substance, which may also go by the names E967, xylite, birch sugar, wood sugar, or birch bark extract. Disturbingly, xylitol can be cloaked in the generic category “sugar substitute”, “sugar alcohol”, or even “other ingredients” on a product label. It’s in a lot of very popular chewing gums, because of its documented anti-cavity effect, and it’s so potent that a single little nugget of gum can kill a small dog. This compound may be found in many sugar-free foods (peanut butter and yogurt are of particular interest to dog owners), vitamins/supplements originally intended for humans, and dental products. Pet owners seeking something gentle for use on their pup’s toothbrush need to resist the temptation of baby toothpaste, since it may contain this ingredient. Don’t forget that dogs often make mischief with things to which you didn’t intentionally give them access. Xylitol can be found in syrups, sauces, cosmetics, drink powders, homemade baked goods, and even some clothing and towels (the ones with “cooling technology” are highly suspect).

Even trace amounts of xylitol will cause a dog’s blood sugar to plummet, rapidly bringing on vomiting, dullness, and seizures that may be lengthy enough to cause brain damage and death. Those patients who survive may be left with a non-functional liver. I am not trying to keep you awake tonight, but it’s relatively easy for your pet to become gravely ill from chewing on something that was right under your nose all along. Xylitol is a kind of wunderkind that may find its way into more and more products that we use on a daily basis. Many of those are specifically marketed as natural and even beneficial, while simultaneously presenting an irresistible lure to curious canines. My best advice for dog owners is to remain on high alert for this stealthy killer, removing all of it from your own home and the homes to which your dog pays regular visits. The possible consequences of 60 seconds without supervision are just far too harsh.

Dr. M.S. Regan