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How Diabetes Alert Dogs Help Patients Manage Blood Sugar

Updated on January 5, 2017
Carola Finch profile image

Carola writes about health, parenting, childhood trauma, disabilities, and social issues. She manages a news website about disabilities.

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Dogs can be trained to warn patients with type 1 diabetes that their blood sugar is low (hypoglycemia), says Diabetes Forecast.

Most of these canines are trained to detect low and high blood sugar levels and alert diabetics early in an episode by:

  • Bringing a specific object
  • Nudging, scratching or tapping
  • Putting their paws on a part of the diabetic’s body such as the shoulders
  • Retrieving needed food and medication such as glucose tabs, glucagon, insulin, juice or meters
  • Getting a phone during emergencies
  • Dialing 911 on a special device
  • Alerting another person in the house to their condition

A diabetes alert dog does not replace a glucose monitor, but their superior sense of smell can provide extra security for people with insulin-dependent diabetes, especially while they are sleeping. These dogs undergo intense training for months or years through either companies or non-profit organizations. They are considered to be service animals and wear service-dog vests while working.

Defining Low Blood Sugar in Diabetics

Low blood sugar, known as hypoglycaemia, can cause symptoms such as fatigue, disorientation, and shakiness. These episodes can occur suddenly with little warning in some people with diabetes. If the person does not consume sugar in time, their condition could cause seizures and lead to unconsciousness. Patients must prick their fingers and do a blood test with a blood glucose monitor in order to determine how much insulin to administer.

The warning signs of low blood sugar are symptoms such as confusion, nausea, shaking, and sweating. Some people are not able to interpret these symptoms as a drop in sugar levels. Levels may also drop while diabetics are sleeping. If patients do not receive a sugar boost in time, they could experience seizures that lead to unconsciousness.

Research on Low Blood Sugar Detection

There has not been a lot of scientific evidence on the effectiveness of diabetic dogs, but many owners and organizations say these dogs can detect low blood sugar levels. According to Nevada Public Radio, scientists are not sure whether dogs are reacting to symptoms of hypoglycemia or are “smelling” low blood sugar levels.

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Cambridge University researchers did a study which explored whether dogs can detect chemicals in the breath of a type 1 diabetes patients and then warn patients when they have dangerously low blood sugar levels.

Researchers believed that there are naturally-occurring chemicals in exhaled breath that change when glucose levels are low. The results of the Cambridge study showed that the chemical isoprene, one of the most common natural elements in human breath, rose and sometimes nearly doubled when sugar levels were low.

Scientists know little about where the chemical comes from or why isoprene levels rise when patients experience extremely low blood sugar. Researchers believed that dogs may be sensitive to presence of isoprene in diabetics. Scientists hope to develop a breathalyzer-type of test in the future that can alert patients to changes in sugar levels. Their goal is to eventually eliminate the need for glucose monitoring devices. These devices require that patients prick a finger or thumb for a drop of blood, place the drop on a test strip, and then insert the strip into the meter to measure glucose levels.

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Cost And Commitment Involved with Diabetic Dogs

Unfortunately, alert dogs are expensive. Buyers should educate themselves on what to look for in a dog and ask potential dog providers for references. As in any expensive purchase, buyers should beware. Websites such as Diabetic Alert Dog can provide helpful information for those considering purchasing a dog.

Dogs should not be trained to use behaviors such as barking or rubbing legs when detecting low blood sugar, which are common to all dogs. Their alerting behaviors should be distinct and easy to interpret. Proper full-time training for months or even years, exposure to various environments, and socialization is required. Ongoing training, testing, and certification should be included in the services offered by the dog provider.

Service dogs should be at least 18 months old. There can be long waiting lists for up to two years to obtain these dogs. Waiting lists tend to be longer for non-profit organizations than for companies.

Having a diabetic dog involves commitment on the owner’s part to monitor the animal and ensure the dog has ongoing assessments. Many organizations offer training sessions for a few days or weeks for new owners. Reputable organizations will also conduct follow-ups for the first six months to a year, and are available for any retraining that is needed—all of which is included in the initial cost.

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