Ever heard of sorbitol? It’s a sweet sugar-derived alcohol that naturally occurs in many fruits, like bananas, apples, pears, peaches, and plums (even dried prunes). Chemists and commercial manufacturers can synthesize sugar alcohols like sorbitol and use them as a low-calorie sugar substitutes. Nowadays, you’ll find sorbitol in a lot of packaged food or edible products, such as candies, chewing gum, diet drinks, ice cream, toothpaste, and even cough syrups. In small doses, sorbitol doesn’t harm humans.
But what about dogs? Can dogs have sorbitol in their dog food or snacks?
Sorbitol is safe (in small doses)
Yup. Just as in humans, sorbitol is safe for dogs when it’s added to food or edibles in small doses.
This is why you may find this artificial sweetener in some pet products, like dog toothpaste or commercially-available dog treats. So don’t worry if you see it listed in the ingredients on the back of the product package. Sorbitol, along with other sugar alcohols like maltitol and erythritol, are generally safe and aren’t going to harm or kill your dog.
Why it’s safe
Natural or synthetic sorbitol is generally safe because its molecular structure resembles that of sucrose. Sucrose is a common sugar found in lots of plants and fruits. It’s easily digested by both animals and humans.
Moreover, sorbitol is half as sweet as sugar and contains only about 2.6 calories per gram. (Compare that to regular table sugar’s 4 calories per gram!) So it has a low glycemic index — meaning, it’s less likely to cause frequent spikes in a dog’s blood sugar level when consumed and is less likely to cause diabetes over time.
Symptoms of sorbitol overdose
However, large amounts of sorbitol can bring about highly-uncomfortable side effects for both dogs and humans. So beyond the occasional fruit or sweet treat (e.g., one tiny treat every other day), don’t let your dog gorge himself on sorbitol-laced candies or goodies.
Of course, this will also depend on how much your dog’s body can take. (Which means it’s dependent on his size.) And how would you know if your particular dog has had too much sorbitol? Here are the tell-tale signs of a sorbitol overdose in dogs:
When large amounts of sorbitol are mixed in food, it tends to cause the over-absorption of water. The resulting stool in a dog’s intestines becomes watery and unable to clump together into a more solid mass. Sorbitol also tends to irritate a dog’s intestines, which rushes the rate of bowel movement and makes him defecate more often than normal (diarrhea). If the dog poops too often, he can end up dehydrated.
This is because sorbitol has osmotic and laxative properties. Sorbitol is even sometimes used to treat constipation and cases of substance poisoning in dogs.
2. Stomach upset
Along with diarrhea comes abdominal pain and bloating of the dog’s stomach. His gastrointestinal system’s microbiome — the beneficial bacteria and other microorganisms in his stomach and intestines — become disturbed and produce more gas. This leads to flatulence. (Yup, your dog will fart more!) Your dog may also suffer from nausea and vomiting.
Note: If your dog has any pre-existing irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), sorbitol will worsen it.
While it hasn’t been officially studied in dogs, there’s a third set of symptoms that could show up in puppies.
A 2016 study discovered that lactating rats that consume sorbitol can pass the substance on to their babies via their milk. The offspring that are exposed to sorbitol end up becoming undersized adult rats later on. They also bear symptoms of bone marrow and liver damage.
Again, while a matching study of dogs has not yet been done, this is one possible outcome for puppies whose mothers were fed large amounts of sorbitol during pregnancy or while they were nursing.
What to do
While it’s highly unlikely that your dog will experience it, what should you do in case your dog overdoses on sorbitol?
Easy! Call your vet or local animal poison control center. Ask what you can give your dog to keep him hydrated and well-nourished while his body flushes out the excess sorbitol. The doctor will likely tell you to just give him regular soft food and lots of water to drink, and wait until the symptoms subside.
If your dog seems particularly weakened and in pain, take him to the vet clinic immediately for treatment.
The final word: moderation
Here now are a few tips on how you can prevent your dog from getting a sorbitol overdose:
- If you buy commercial dog treats with sorbitol, give them to your dog only once in a while. If you’ve bought a bunch, keep all sorbitol-laden treats safely hidden away from your inquisitive dog!
- Don’t ever feed your dog with diet cakes, diet drinks, diet pastries, or diet anything that’s originally meant for human consumption. (Ditto for chewing gum, mints, or beer — keep these out of your dog’s reach!) These food items have a lot more sorbitol than what dogs can tolerate.
- When using doggie toothpaste on your dog’s teeth, follow the package instructions on how much of the product to use. Don’t use more than you have to. (Remember, dog toothpaste tends to have sorbitol.)
- Don’t let your dog have access to any fermenting fruits. It doesn’t matter if it’s fruit that’s been sitting in a bowl for a week or free fruit that’s fallen from a tree in a park or garden — you’ll never know when a piece of old fruit has developed enough natural sorbitol to upset your dog’s stomach. (Especially if he gets greedy and has a sweet tooth!)
So don’t worry much about sorbitol. As long as you keep sorbitol in your dog’s diet to a bare minimum, it won’t interfere with your dog’s health and safety.