You may not remember the Xylitol thing. It’s the artificial sweetener now known to cause liver failure in dogs. (See my post from last October.) This past Monday, USA Today published an article on this recently discovered toxin alongside the pet food recall announcement.


A conclusive study was done in September of 2004 demonstrating the high degree of toxicity of this common industrial ingredient (one sugarfree cupcake can mean death in some cases). But the vet community was completely clueless until the ASPCA’s Animal Poison Control wrote a vet-targeted bulletin explaining the implications of toxicity with this common sugar substitute...this past summer.


Even then, most of us didn’t see it. It may well have crossed our desks but it wasn’t until a blurb was published in the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association this past September that it achieved widespread exposure in the vet community.


Still, most vets don’t get to their journals immediately while others eschew the scholarly journals in favor of more instructional publications. And still more of us, while informed, don’t automatically make conclusive connections between the scholarly and the practical without discussion among colleagues or via veterinary trade publications.


Regardless, the inference here is that most vets still haven’t programmed their radars to include Xylitol as a common toxin—yet. Call your vet hospital to say your pet ate your Altoids (some contain Xylitol) and there’s an outside chance you’d get a clued in receptionist who knows you need to be seen ASAP. More often than not, you’ll get a bemused employee suggesting you watch for vomiting and diarrhea—just in case.


You might think my assessment unfair. Just to check if my vet friends (most of whom are [typically] more well-informed specialists) were representative of the awareness level on this issue (and they had heard about it but didn’t remember the particulars), I called several Miami-area practices this morning. (I know this sounds rude, but I thought it important for the purposes of this post.)


Six small animal hospitals were sampled. Each was posed a question: “My Bischon ate my Altoids. Is that going to be a problem?” Three said no—one even put me on hold for awhile and [presumably] asked the doc to be sure. Three said probably not but their policy is to have the doctor check out the animal and to watch for vomiting and diarrhea in the meantime.


For the record, our practice was among the latter three. Yet even our experienced, knowledgeable receptionist didn’t urge me to come in right away. Although she knows about Xylitol, she thought the product was only in gums and sugar-free “cupcake thingies.”


Q. So how does this have anything to do with the pet food recall?

A. Communication—as the title of this post plainly predicts.


First, my profession has to take its lumps. Vets have not yet learned to disseminate information, whether we’re talking anomalous pet foods or novel toxins—not to mention important news on procedures and scientific findings.


The highly disenfranchised nature of the vet profession, with so many single-vet practices out there, makes ours an especially susceptible group. Disseminating information quickly is clearly not our forte and, as the pet food recall and the Xylitol situation have shown, this failing has direct implications for our pets’ immediate safety.


The same can surely be said of the human medical profession, yet they are much less at risk due to the newsworthy nature of their information and the fact that they practice in much larger groups. But still, it happens. Remember Vioxx? The tainted spinach? And now the peanut butter thing? It took time for the trickle-down. How long? Too long. And the manufacturers/growers are paying the price.


So it should go with the pet food recall. The responsible and/or involved parties should have stepped up and broadcast their news for safety’s sake—but none would if all didn’t comply (or so I suspect). After all, who wants to be the loud one? Who wants to be singled out to pay that heavy price?


In this case, the squeaky wheel suffers the axe of public scrutiny. Best to hide amongst the other alleged offenders until everything shakes out—never mind that our pets may be dying in droves for all they know or seem to care. Make it quiet…make it go away…


Xylitol is another story, because its manufacturers are producing a known toxin…legally. They have no particular legal responsibility (according to the FDA) to make their products known to their users—“it’s for humans, not for animals,” they defensively assert. They also defend their use of the sweetener as necessary to diabetics (as if Xylitol was the only sugar substitute available!).


No matter that the conglomerates using Xylitol also make pet food. How can we really believe that they care about our pets when they refuse to include warning labels on the products poisonous to pets?, when they defend their product so vigorously?, when they know that pets are dying because they choose not to expose their product to censure? They know that keeping quiet on the X------ thing is what’s best for their bottom line...because Xylitol is cheap and the brands are already out there lining the shelves and selling well.


So much for communication.


The cynical vet signs off. Tomorrow I’ll go light on you again, I promise.



Image: Andrew / Flickr