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Sweet But Toxic Xylitol

A ferret that ate food containing the sweetener xylitol is brought to Dr. Murray.

By Jerry Murray, DVM
Posted: March 23, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT

face of sick ferret
© Courtesy Jerry Murray, DVM
The sugar substitute xylitol can cause illness and possibly death in ferrets, dogs and possibly rabbits.
ferret with yellowing on skin caused by poisoning
© Courtesy Jerry Murray, DVM
This ferret is showing signs of liver damage, evidenced by the yellowing of her skin, nose, gums and lips.

I had a sad case recently. A young pet ferret had eaten some Tic Tacs. One might think Tic Tacs would only cause an upset stomach, but it can actually be fatal to ferrets. Unfortunately some sugar-free products contain xylitol. Xylitol is a sugar alcohol that is as sweet as sucrose but contains a lot less calories. It is a common sugar substitute in gum, candy, Jell-O, and baked products. Xylitol is considered safe for humans, but it can cause problems in dogs, ferrets and possibly rabbits.

There has been some research with xylitol in dogs. Back in the 1970s it was noted that xylitol could cause dogs to have low blood glucose problems. When dogs eat xylitol, the pancreas responds to this sweetener by releasing insulin. The insulin causes the blood glucose level to be lowered. If a dog eats too much of this sugar substitute, it will get lethargic and may have some vomiting and diarrhea within one hour. This can progress to severe weakness and seizure activity within a few hours. More recent research has shown that if the dog is not treated quickly, liver damage and liver failure can develop as soon as 12 hours after ingestion. The liver damage can be fatal even with treatment.

Pet ferrets are also at risk if they ingest xylitol. Ferrets seem to have a sweet tooth and are prone to eating candy and other inappropriate things. Ferrets that eat xylitol can have the same low glucose problems similar to dogs and are also at risk for liver damage just like dogs.

In the case I had, the pet ferret had eaten Tic Tacs that had xylitol in them. The ferret’s glucose was low, and she was also showing signs of liver damage. One sign of liver damage is the yellowing of the skin, nose, gums and lips. This is called jaundice and it was obvious in this ferret. Treatment at this point is to give IV fluids and dextrose to raise the glucose level. Additional treatment for the liver can include SAMe, silybin (milk thistle), vitamin E and mucomyst. Plasma or blood transfusions may be helpful too; however, once the liver damage has been done it may be too late for any treatment to work.

Other human foods that can cause serious problems in small mammals include raisins, grapes, and chocolate. Be very careful about what your pets eat to avoid accidental poisoning.

See all of Dr. Murray's columns>>

Posted: March 23, 2011, 5 a.m. EDT

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