[Tweeters] Xylitol could kill sugarbirds - and pets

Devorah the Ornithologist birdologist at gmail.com
Mon Nov 16 09:06:25 PST 2015

Xylitol could kill sugarbirds - and pets

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Xylitol could kill sugarbirds - and pets
By: Helen Bamford
This story has been expanded - IOL Editor
Cape Town - A popular sweetener among diabetics and those wanting to lose
weight has been found to be deadly to dogs and birds.

Xylitol is a sugar alcohol used as a sweetener in baked products, chewing
gum, toothpaste and lozenges.
But vets have warned people to keep their pets away from it.
On Easter Sunday, a 10-year-old Chihuahua, Pip, in Fort Collins, Colorado,
died after eating apple pie baked with xylitol.
The owner’s vet said that while the sweetener was safe for humans, it could
lead to pancreas and liver failure and even seizures if eaten by animals.
It appears that xylitol is also toxic for wild birds.
Joburg vet Dr Brett Gardner examined the bodies of 30 Cape Sugarbirds that
had died within 30 minutes of drinking a solution made with xylitol, from a
feeder in a Hermanus garden.
The homeowner had bought the xylitol for a diabetic family member and was
unaware it was toxic for birds.
When the birds dropped dead he contacted CapeNature, which sent the
carcasses and the solution to the Johannesburg Zoo where Gardner examined
them and concluded that xylitol was the likely culprit.
Gardner suspects the xylitol triggered a huge insulin release, causing an
irreversible drop in blood sugar.
He believes it is the first case of xylitol intoxication reported in a wild
Because the product had only become popular in the past few years he had
not been able to trace any other reported cases of poisonings in birds.
“There have been some studies on its |use in poultry and there it resulted
in |poor growth. In some studies done on nectar preferences it has been
shown that nectar-feeding birds avoid nectar containing xylitol.”
But there had been a fair amount of case reports of xylitol toxicity in
dogs in the US and it had recently been identified as an emerging toxicity.
“In dogs it has been ingested via xylitol containing sugar-free gum and
used as a diabetic sugar in baked goods (and the like). I even saw some ice
cream being sold as healthy low-carb containing xylitol.”
Gardner intends writing a continuing professional development article for
vets |on xylitol toxicity and is documenting |the sugarbird case for an
avian practitioner’s journal.
In Cape Town a number of vets already warn their clients about the
potential |dangers.
Dr Cathy Wahl, of Kloof Vet in Green Point, said accidental poisoning of
pets from xylitol can happen if someone has used it as a sweetener in their
own food and put the leftovers down for their pets.
People also mistakenly believe that because it is safe for humans it is
safe for pets.
There is not much information available on toxicity in cats but there are
many reports of such poisonings in dogs since they |are more likely to
pinch treats containing|xylitol.
Ingestion of xylitol in dogs, unlike in humans, leads to the release of
high levels of insulin which leads to hypoglycaemia (low blood glucose)
causing weakness, disorientation and, in severe cases, seizures.
Long-term liver necrosis can result and lead to liver failure and death.
Early in January last year, approximately 30 Cape sugarbirds (Promerops
cafer) were found dead in a garden in Voëlklip, near Hermanus.
The property owner contacted CapeNature staff, who had the foresight to
preserve the carcasses so post-mortem examinations could be performed.
The frozen birds were sent to the Johannesburg Zoo in Gauteng.
Luckily, a frozen sample of the nectar from the bird feeder was also
submitted, along with the package details of the sugar used in the nectar
After careful examination of the birds, together with observers’ accounts
of the birds after they visited the feeder containing a concentrated
xylitol solution, and ruling out all other obvious causes of death, we
concluded the most likely cause of death was xylitol toxicosis.
Generally, flowers offer one of three nectar sugars as rewards for
pollination: glucose, fructose and sucrose.
Within the southern African Proteaceae, a family of plants on which Cape
sugarbirds are highly dependent, only two genera have been shown to produce
small to moderate amounts (1 to 39 percent) of xylose in their nectar.
Xylose is absent from the nectar of the remaining 14 genera.
Xylitol has recently become popular as an ingredient in human foodstuffs,
often as part of low-carbohydrate or diabetic diets. As its use spreads, an
increasing number of cases of toxicity are being reported in dogs and other
species. In dogs, xylitol causes an enormous stimulation of the pancreas
and release of insulin.
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first case of xylitol intoxication
reported from a wild bird.
What we suspect may have occurred with these birds is that ingesting a
highly concentrated solution of xylitol triggered a massive insulin
release, causing an irreversible drop in blood sugar.
The sugarbirds apparently started exhibiting signs of distress within 30
minutes after drinking the xylitol nectar.
I therefore cannot recommend strongly enough that readers never include
xylitol in any nectar or other food source offered to birds.
* This article was published in the latest edition of African Birdlife.
* Dr Brett Gardner is a veterinarian based in Joburg.

Devorah Bennu, PhD
birdologist at gmail.com
blog: Maniraptora <http://www.scilogs.com/maniraptora/>
TinyLetter: Keep up with my latest writing!
*sunt lacrimae rerum et mentem mortalia tangunt. *[Virgil, Aeneid]
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