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Dogs May Be A Best Friend For People with Diabetes

Dogs for diabetes patients

Good friends can tell each other and share things that are special in many ways, and that could be true for dogs as well. In fact, if you have diabetes, a dog may be able to let you know if your blood glucose levels is too low or too high, illustrating how dogs can truly be man’s best friend.

Diabetes goes to the dogs

It’s not unusual for dogs to be called into special service for people. There are bomb- and drug-sniffing dogs, canines who are trained to search for lost people, and those who serve people who have autism as well as those who are blind or physically disabled.

Increasingly, dogs are being called into service in the medical field, and among the latest ways they are helpful is as alarm dogs—letting people with diabetes know when their blood sugar levels are abnormally high or low. A new study in PLoS One is the first to report on an evaluation of dogs who have been trained to perform this important service.

A total of 17 trained dogs and their owners with type 1 diabetes (4 males, 13 females; ages 5 to 66 years) were studied by a team of UK researchers. The goal of the study was twofold: to identify if the dogs could accurately respond when their owners’ blood sugar levels dropped too low (hypoglycemia) and if the owners experienced improved control of their glucose levels and any other advantages.

Most of the dogs were Labrador Retrievers (6), while the remaining dogs included Labradoodles, Labrador/Golden Retriever cross, Collie cross, Lurcher, Cocker Spaniel, Poodle, and Yorkshire Terrier. The owners had lived with their trained dogs from 4 months to 7 years.

The participants were questioned about their lives before and after getting their trained diabetes dog. Researchers were interested in the incidence of hypoglycemia and times when patients became unconscious or required paramedic assistance.

Eight participants said they had experienced unconsciousness prior to having a trained dog but had none since that time. Three individuals had required paramedic assistance before they had a trained dog, but no one needed such help after getting a dog.

Study participants also said they had improved independence since getting the trained dog and that the dogs had displayed “significant accuracy” in identifying when blood glucose levels were either too high or too low. In fact, 13 individuals said they completely trusted their dog to let them know if they had hypoglycemia, while only six individuals said they totally trusted their dog to let them know if blood glucose was too high.

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The authors noted, however, that dogs trained to detect abnormal blood sugar levels are first taught to detect low blood sugar, which uncovering high blood glucose is a secondary task. Therefore, not all dogs are “up to snuff” when it comes to detecting hyperglycemia.

Does the nose know?

Experts are not certain exactly how dogs know when blood glucose levels are out of range. Since dogs have a superior sense of smell, it is believed they can detect specific odors in a person’s breath or sweat.

Among people with diabetes, dogs may sniff the breath and detect a condition called ketosis, in which levels of ketone bodies are elevated in the blood. Ketones are formed when the liver is depleted of its supply of glycogen, a form of energy stored mainly in the liver and muscles.

In another recent study, researchers reported on their work with three dogs who are being trained to help detect early stage ovarian cancer. These dogs were trained to sniff out the disease in blood and tissue samples.

A dog may also detect the presence of cancer by sniffing the breath or stool samples of individuals with colon cancer. In a study involving 48 patients with diagnosed bowel cancer and 258 cancer-free volunteers, a Labrador accurately identified cancer in 33 of 36 breath samples and in 37 of 38 stool tests.

In another study, a Belgian Malinois shepherd trained to smell prostate cancer in urine was tested. The dog identified prostate cancer with 91 percent accuracy. Other research has indicated dogs can detect breast, lung, and bladder cancers.

In this latest study of dogs and diabetes, Dr. Nicola Rooney, the lead author, noted that their findings are important for people with diabetes because they show that trained dogs may provide “significant improvements to owner well-being, including increased glycemic control, client independence and quality-of-life, and potentially could reduce the costs of long-term health care.” Such research also gives new meaning to how a dog may be man’s best friend.

Rooney NJ et al. Investigation into the value of trained glycaemia alert dogs to clients with type 1 diabetes. PLoS ONE 2013; 8(8): e69921
Sonoda H et al. Colorectal cancer screening with odour material by canine scent detection. Gut 2011 Jan 31; 60: 814-19

Image: Pixabay