Ever pick up one of those foul, fake, Sara-Lee sugar-free cupcakes? It contains a substitute for a surrogate of a stand-in for sugar whose danger to dogs confirms a belief I`ve always held dear: once we humans start to simulate things, a certain number of generations later we’re bound to mess it up.

Case in point: What do Vioxx, the space shuttle and the 2006 Mustang all have in common? They were all better in their first incarnations. `Nuff said.

Xylitol is the name of this stuff. It lives in lots of savagely over-processed desserts whose half-lives rival plutonium’s. Ever leave a Twinkie out? Not even ants will touch it. It will last indefinitely just sitting on the countertop and furthermore, will forever taste the same. (And they say cockroaches are the only things destined to survive a nuclear holocaust.)

Now that I`ve disparaged Twinkies gratuitously, let me be forthright in informing you that Twinkies do not contain xylitol. (They are nasty, though.) Sugar-free gums, candies, toothpaste, and increasingly, cookies and pastries are all commonly sweetened with xylitol.

Xylitol has been the subject of a recent study that demonstrates the devastating power of a seemingly innocuous supermarket substance on the canine liver. Rimadyl, raw onions and Tylenol have nothing on this sweetener. It only takes a few cupcakes left unobserved on the kitchen counter to kill even a large dog. Your three-pound Yorkie? A fraction of one offered surreptitiously by a well-meaning guest might suffice.

We’ve known about this toxin for some time but it’s only recently that we’ve discovered a definitive connection between even small amounts of the product and deadly liver toxicity in dogs. Dogs just don’t have the liver enzymes necessary to deal with this particular molecule.

Ingestion of a large amount (a box of cupcakes) can cause a sudden drop in blood sugar (hypoglycemia) followed by seizures as soon as 30 minutes after ingestion. Smaller amounts can have delayed effects—up to twelve hours later. By this time, you might not be able to make the connection between ingestion and illness.

If your dog does consume xylitol, inform your vet immediately. Estimate the amount consumed. Armed with the product’s label, call the animal poison control hotline on the way to your vet’s office. They will ask for $55. Pay it. Your vet will then be able to converse directly with the poison control specialist.

Typically, vomiting will be induced if the ingestion was recent. Activated charcoal might be considered. Fluid therapy is a must. Supportive care for neurological signs (like seizures) will be provided with valium, phenobarbital or propofol, as needed. Liver enzymes and coagulation times will also be monitored. Can the xylitol-afflicted survive? Apparently it depends on the dose, the patient’s size, and the speed of treatment.

How do you prevent this toxicity? Simple. Don’t buy any xylitol-containing products. Like rat poison or antifreeze, it’s a product just not worth keeping around. Read your sugar-free labels carefully! Because (unlike rat poison and antifreeze) there is no antidote.

So now that we know how toxic xylitol products can be, will they be pulled off supermarket shelves? Nope. The FDA does not step in to regulate pet-toxic ingredients in products intended for human consumption—even if they inadvertently result in the death of hundreds or thousands of our family members.

In their defense, were the FDA to enforce a new policy eliminating pet-toxic products, chocolate would be gone from our lives, too. We don’t really want that, do we? What we do need, however, is very simple: a warning label on all chocolate, xylitol, and other products poisonous to our pets. Is that too much to ask for?

Problem is, the FDA has lower standards for our pets` safety than we pet-devotees demand. Consider the Hartz and Sergeant’s products: cheap, poorly efficacious, and deadly when used even a smidge off-label (try using their poorly-labeled pyrethrins-based flea products on a cat and you’ll quickly see why). Then again, I guess these are sort of like Twinkies: they’re simply bad for you. The difference is that no one can prove anyone’s ever died from consuming a Twinkie.