‘Diabetes Dogs’ Can Alert Owners To Sugar Levels

People with diabetes may have a new way to indicate their blood sugar level is too high or too low, by turning to our trusty canine friends, after researchers have found that dogs can help with hypoglycemia monitoring.

The study, published in PLOS ONE, is the first of its kind to analyze whether trained dogs can accurately and consistently serve as an “early-warning system” to monitor blood sugar levels for their owners and notify them when the levels are too high or low.

For the research, 17 dogs were trained by Medical Detection Dogs – a UK charity that works with researchers and universities – to warn their owners when their blood sugar levels were “out of target range.”

Researchers then collected data from the owners to analyze whether the dogs were accurately able to respond to their owners’ hypoglycemic levels, and also whether the owners experienced better blood sugar control and wider benefits.

The results show that all 17 owners reported positive outcomes, including:

  • Fewer paramedic calls
  • Fewer unconscious episodes
  • Improved independence.

Additionally, the owners’ data showed that the dogs notified them with “significant accuracy” during times of both low and high blood sugar.

Dr. Nicola Rooney says:

“Despite considerable resources having been invested in developing electronic systems to facilitate tightened glycemic control, current equipment has numerous limitations.”

“These findings are important as they show the value of trained dogs and demonstrate that ‘glycemia alert dogs’ placed with clients living with diabetes, afford 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.”

Sniffing out blood sugar

The study authors note that although dogs respond to their owners’ high or low blood sugar levels, they cannot be entirely sure how they do this. They cite odor cues as the most likely explanation, saying:

“It is likely that dogs detect changes in the chemical composition of their owners’ sweat, or breath (including products of ketosis), using their acute sense of smell.”

They say their study confirms that trained detection dogs perform above the chance level, which is the level that would be expected if random choices were made.

Dr. Nicola Rooney adds:

“Some of the owners also describe [that] their dogs respond even before their blood sugars are low, but as they start to drop, so it is possible that the dogs are even more effective than this study suggests.”

She says that further research is needed in order to determine how the dogs “carry out this amazing task.”

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