Hidden Poison: Xylitol and Dogs

I recently read the ASPCA’s list of the toxins most commonly ingested by pets: Announcing the Top Pet Toxins of 2015. I thought it was worth sharing.

I’d rank them differently, though. The top two they list are medications (prescription and over-the-counter). While I don’t doubt that these cause many problems for pets, I also think that most of you, my readers, know to keep your meds out of pets’ reach.

Number four on the ASPCA list is where I want to focus this post — in particular, an item included under number four: Xylitol.

Xylitol is a sweetener. According to xylitol’s official website, “Xylitol is a naturally occurring carbohydrate, that looks and tastes just like regular table sugar. It is a natural sweetener that can be extracted from any woody fibrous plant material.” Who knew?

It’s perfectly safe (as far as we know …) for humans. The problem is, xylitol is highly toxic to dogs. Even a small amount can cause liver toxicity or severe hypoglycemia. It triggers the body to release insulin. Only a tiny amount — a tenth of a gram per kilo of dog’s body weight (a 60-lb. golden, Jana for instance, weighs about 27 kilos) can cause severe hypoglycemia in a dog. Keep in mind that one packet of the sweetener, what you might add to your morning coffee, has more than a gram.

When it was first introduced, xylitol showed up in things like toothpaste and mouthwash. Then it became common in mints and chewing gum — things that most people don’t share with their dogs. Now, though, xylitol has taken off as a sugar substitute for people with diabetes. It is appearing in baked goods, ice cream, even peanut butter. I give my dogs peanut butter every time one of them needs a pill (do you seriously think I can give the pill recipient some peanut butter and not give any to the other dog?). I buy natural, nothing-added-but-salt peanut butter, but … hearing that xylitol might be in peanut butter really brought home to me how essential it is to check the ingredients list, especially on anything that is “sugar free.”

Xylitol is even more dangerous than chocolate, according to this detailed article on Preventive Vet’s website: “Xylitol: The ‘sugar-free’ sweetener your dog NEEDS you to know about.” The article provides illustrations showing how much gum or sweetener powder would add up to a dangerous dose for different-sized dogs. Preventive Vet also has this list of grocery products that contain xylitol.

Symptoms of xylitol poisoning include vomiting, weakness, lack of coordination, lethargy, tremors and seizures. However, your dog’s chances of recovery are much better if you start treatment before he shows symptoms, so if you suspect that your dog ate something with xylitol, get to a vet immediately.

Better than treatment, of course, is prevention. Read the labels of products you buy and keep anything with xylitol out of your dog’s reach. If your dog sometimes gets into your purse or that niche in the car where you keep a pack of gum, don’t take chances; buy products that don’t have xylitol.

Some Like It Hot

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

When Jana was a young puppy, she had the strange and (I thought) disgusting habit of shredding, and sometimes eating, the trash. If I left her at home for too long — which, when she was a few months old meant “more than 10 minutes” — she’d empty one or more wastebaskets, usually leaving some of the shredded remains next to the wastebasket. Ick.

I knew that buying wastebaskets with lids or placing the wastebaskets out of reach would manage the problem, but I wanted to stop the behavior. A more-experienced trainer friend had a suggestion: douse the contents of the trash baskets with something very hot or spicy, something that would repel her with its scent or, if that failed, with the first bite. Tabasco sauce, perhaps.

Despite being a bit dubious, I decided to try it out.  The next time I was leaving Jana at home, I liberally sprinkled Tabasco over the crumpled tissues and bits of paper in the wastebaskets. I returned home to a floor clear of shreds … and to empty wastebaskets and a happy dog, wagging her thanks. “Great sauce, Mom, can I have some more?”

Hmmm. Not the reaction I had hoped for.

She’s consistent in her taste, though. Her dad, Moshe, used to give her bits of pita with hummus and schug, a very hot Yemenite condiment that makes smoke come out of my ears with the merest whiff. She now enjoys her breakfasts and dinner with a healthy spoonful of turmeric (a great anti-inflammatory).

I ascribed Jana’s odd penchant for spicy food to her Israeli heritage. Until last week.

We’ve been spending lots of time at the home of Gracie and Scarlett, two Montana goldens whose dad has a beautiful garden. The garden currently is bursting with an abundance of tomatoes, beans, squash and peppers (to Cali’s dismay, the peas are done for the season). Among the peppers that Deni harvested a few days ago were dozens of beautiful jalapeños.

As is her habit, Scarlett (now eight months old) watched like a hawk as Deni harvested and sorted vegetables, pouncing on any that fell to the ground and, when the opportunity presented itself, snatching veggies off the table. Green beans, squash, tomatoes … fine. Then she nabbed a large jalapeño and ran off to her “hiding” spot under the deck. As Deni watched in amazement, Scarlett took a bite, then another and another — until she had eaten the entire jalapeño, seeds, ribs, and all. As if to prove that she can take the heat, she nabbed another the next day and ate it, too. She has not shown any sign of ill effects or even indigestion. She didn’t even gulp down an entire bucketful of water afterward (as I would have).

While I certainly do not advocate feeding spicy foods to dogs, it seems that Jana is not the only girl who’s looking to spice up her kibble, fish, and peanut-butter cookie diet. Who knows? If your dog is turning her nose up at her ordinary meals, perhaps the problem isn’t that she doesn’t like the food — she might just be holding out for the right condiments.

(In case you’re wondering: Jana (mostly)outgrew her trashy habit; now she only shreds one tissue and leaves it for me, and only if she’s angry.)

Food Before Thought

IMG_1725

As Deni and Albee prepared to head off to a Rally Obedience class the other night, we discussed when to feed the dogs their dinner. Many trainers over the years have advised their human students not to feed dogs before training class. The dogs work better when they are hungry, is the claim. Deni and I pondered this, wondering whether it was good advice, anthropomorphism gone amok, or just plain silliness.

If it is an attempt to look at dogs through human eyes (the anthropomorphism gone amok theory), I guess it can be argued that really wanting something might make a being focus harder on what he or she has to do to get it. Therefore, if the dog really, really wants food, wouldn’t the dog focus harder on figuring out how to get it? Might sound plausible … except for a few problems. One is that the tiny tidbits of food a dog gets as rewards in training hardly take the place of a meal. And, this theory demands that you ignore stacks and stacks of research about learning or concentration and hunger.

Kids do not learn well when they are hungry. A really hungry child, and, probably, a really hungry dog, simply does not focus well. Research showing this has led public schools in low-income areas to offer not only free lunches, but breakfast as well, in attempts to boost concentration and improve kids’ learning.

Adults’ performance also suffers if we don’t eat a healthful breakfast. We know this, yet somehow think that our dogs will focus and learn if they are hungry? Doubtful.

Some trainers make a comparison with human athletes and point out that athletes are unlikely to eat a large meal just before a workout. Sure, but if training class is at 7 p.m., that is not a valid argument against feeding the dog at 5. Anyhow, a Rally class, an obedience class, even an agility class has a lot more in common with a grade-school classroom or a desk job than a triathalon. The dogs are not asked to perform athletic feats for hours, or even minutes on end. They are asked to pay attention to their handlers, to ignore distractions, to figure out what is needed, whether it is touching the contact at the end of the dog walk, sitting and staying for three minutes, or walking on a loose leash. The demands are primarily mental.

But there’s another, more important element. When trainers talk about training, it’s hard to avoid mention of the four quadrants of operant conditioning / behaviorism. The positive reinforcement quadrant is the one we are most familiar with — rewarding behavior we like. Ostensibly, the advice to train hungry dogs ties in with this: The dogs will get food rewards for their performance, and better performance will lead to more rewards. It’s all good, right?

Let’s look at it more honestly. Depriving a being of something it needs in order to get it to do what you want is called … torture. Withholding meals, then providing minute rewards for compliance falls into the “negative reinforcement” quadrant — removing a negative when the dog performs the requested behavior is supposed to increase the likelihood of the dog performing the behavior. Late dinner is about as negative as it gets for some dogs!

I know that comparing delaying a meal with common negative reinforcement techniques like ear pinch is an exaggeration. But comparing dog training class to an athletic workout isn’t? The dog will (eventually) get a meal, so feeding after training is not really abusive. But it is unfair. And it exploits the complete control we humans have over every aspect of our dogs’ lives.

The advice to delay meals might have been conceived by trainers who worked with dogs that are less food-obsessed than golden and Labrador retrievers. I still think it is wrong. A meal and tiny little training rewards are not the same thing. If your dog is unwilling to work for the training rewards you are offering, it is not because you have fed him; it is because the rewards you are offering are not, in that dog’s mind, motivators.

The cardinal rule of any kind of motivational training is that the trainee — the dog — determines what a motivator is and therefore what the reward should be.

If your training treats only motivate your dog when he is ravenous, skipping dinner is not the answer. Try using better treats. Try using a tennis ball, a tug toy — anything that your dog loves — as a reward. I might be willing to work for several hours to earn a paycheck that will arrive next week, but Cali, Jana, and Albee will always choose the freeze-dried liver over the cash — and they want it now, please. In fact, they will choose liver over and over again, at every opportunity, regardless of whether they’ve had dinner.