Dogs Play Doctor in Fight Against Diabetes

August 20, 2009 07:30 AM
by Jill Marcellus
As doctors search for innovative ways to treat disease, dogs may be sniffing the way to diabetes management.

Man’s Best Doctor

Their sense of smell has already cast them as drug and bomb detectives. Now dogs have become increasingly useful in diagnosing health problems, too. Last December, Queen’s University Belfast surveyed 212 insulin-dependent Type 1 diabetes patients. Researchers found that 65 percent of the patients were warned of a hypoglycemic episode, or dangerous drop in blood sugar, by their pets’ “whining, barking, licking or some other display,” according to Reuters.

Researchers and nonprofits, such as California’s Dogs4Diabetics, are training dogs to use and improve this diagnostic sense of smell as a new tool for managing diabetes. Blood sugar can drop suddenly with consequences as extreme as seizure or coma, so a dog’s signal, which varies by canine, can help a diabetic prevent or treat an episode. Although the process is not entirely understood, Dogs4Diabetics Program Director Carol Edwards believes that the dogs react to a scent released by a person when blood sugar has started or is about to drop, according to Barbara Anderson of The Fresno Bee.

Still, researchers don’t know the exact scent that tips off the dogs, a detail that has prevented the American Diabetes Association from officially backing the canines. “Science has not yet proven the dogs are reacting to a change in body chemistry,” ADA representative Bo Smith says.

Nevertheless, Dogs4Diabetics and their clients insist on the dogs’ reliability. Kristin Wilson, a diabetic still training her canine, calls her assistance dog, Kolumbo, her “guardian angel.” She claims that Kolumbo has already achieved 80 percent accuracy at sniffing out impending hypoglycemic episodes.

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