Researchers hope to prove that a dog's keen sense of smell gives it the ability to watch over the blood sugar levels of people with diabetes.
Canines have already shown themselves capable of leading the blind, alerting the deaf, and helping the physically disabled with daily tasks.
But researchers at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, are taking the "helpful companion" idea one step further by gathering scientific evidence that could verify dogs can reliably detect dangerous blood sugar level drops in diabetics.
Researcher Deborah Wells, Ph.D., says some reports suggest that dogs can perform early warning of hypoglycemia by using their sense of smell to 'sniff out' if their owner's blood sugar levels are dropping.
More than 20 million US children and adults have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Those with the disease do not produce enough insulin, a hormone the body needs to convert sugars, starches, and other food into energy.
Those with the disease must test their blood glucose level regularly, even sometimes in the middle of the night, to avoid the peaks and valleys that can cause organ failure.
Dr. Wells hopes to find out what cues dogs pick up on so they can officially be recognized and trained as an early-warning system for people with diabetes.
At least two organizations in the US already train dogs to detect low glucose levels. But exactly what the canines notice when a person experiences a blood sugar low is still a mystery, says Mark Ruefenacht, founder of Dogs for Diabetics.
The organization is working with a forensic laboratory to identify a possible odor.
"We just haven't come up with the right answers," he says. "Every time we think we have the answer, we find that we don't."
Ruefenacht, who has diabetes, started the organization three years ago, inspired after a puppy he was raising for Guide Dogs for the Blind woke him one night.
Ruefenacht forgot to check his blood sugar before going to sleep, and he thinks he had a seizure that alarmed the puppy.
Since then, the all-volunteer group has placed 30 trained canines in the homes of Northern California residents with type 1 diabetes.
Demand for the dogs is high; more than 100 people are on the waiting list.
Dogs for Diabetics uses Labrador retrievers that do not graduate from guide dog school. These dogs usually flunk for reasons such as refusing to walk in the rain or step onto an escalator - all skills important for being a working dog, but not a general assistance one.
Ruefenacht says his dogs undergo three to four months of training similar to what is used to prepare dogs to detect narcotics or explosives.
The 2-year-old canines are first taught to detect scent samples of low blood sugar. Then they learn to find that scent on people, and alert others by holding in their mouth a soft tube that hangs from around their neck.
Dogs that successfully complete training are 90 percent accurate, notes Ruefenacht.
These clever canines are not the only ones that must learn new tricks. Mary Simon has battled diabetes for more than three decades, and she now drives four hours each week from her home in Fresno to attend the required class.
"I need this dog desperately," says Simon, who is also medical director for the Diabetic Youth Foundation.
Medication that she takes hampers her ability to feel nighttime lows, she explains, and the special glucose sensor she wears does not always work.
When Simon first learned of the hypoglycemic detection dogs a few years ago, she did not think their talent was needed because glucose sensors were about to hit the market. Since then, she has changed her mind.
"My own personal experience is we need [the dogs] right now," she says.
Not everyone is so quick to put their trust in the canines' ability.
Dr. Larry Myers, a veterinarian and professor at Auburn University in Alabama, has trained dogs to detect everything from drugs to agricultural pests for 25 years.
He said the jury is still out on whether dogs can truly detect low blood sugar levels, but he believes it is a possibility worth exploring.
Even though dogs have amazing olfactory abilities, he says they are not universally sensitive to all chemicals.
"Do hypoglycemic individuals, in fact, emit an odor that is characteristic? I don't know, and I don't think anybody does know right now," he says.
A possibility other than scent is the dogs are picking up on visual cues, which is thought to be the case with seizure detection dogs.
Such dogs allegedly can pick up on extremely subtle physiological changes in their human companion that may begin five to 45 minutes before an actual attack.
The dogs then warn the humans so they can find a safe environment or take precautionary measures.
"It turns out what the dogs are really sensitive to is subtle changes in behavior of the individuals just prior to seizing," says Dr. Myers. "It's more of a fact that dogs are very, very, very observant of human behavior."
Always consult your physician for more information.
Checking blood glucose levels regularly is very important in proper diabetes management.
Current methods of blood sugar monitoring require a blood sample.
Blood sugar monitoring can be done at home with a variety of invasive devices to obtain the blood sample (invasive means the penetration of body tissue with a medical instrument).
Usually a drop of blood obtained through a finger prick is sufficient to use on a test strip that is then measured in a monitor.
A finger prick can be done with a small lancet (special needle) or with a spring-loaded lancet device that punctures the fingertip quickly.
The drop of blood is placed on a testing strip. The testing strip is then placed in a blood glucose monitor (also called a glucose meter) which reads the blood sugar level.
There are many types of monitors on the market today, ranging in price, ease of use, size, portability, and length of testing time.
Each monitor requires its own type of testing strip. Blood glucose monitors have been found to be accurate and reliable if correctly used, and most monitors provide results within two minutes.
Some glucose monitors can also give verbal testing instructions and verbal test results for people who are visually or physically impaired.
There are also glucose monitors available that provide verbal instructions in Spanish and other languages.
Persons with diabetes may have to check their blood sugar levels up to four times a day.
Blood sugar levels can be affected by several factors, including the following:
Certain blood glucose monitors are equipped with data-management systems, which means your blood glucose measurement is automatically stored each time.
Some physician offices have computer systems compatible with these data-management systems, which allows the blood sugar level recordings, and other information, to be transferred electronically.
One advantage of a data-management system is the ability to plot a graph on the computer depicting patterns of blood sugar levels.
A finger prick can become painful and difficult for a person with diabetes to do on a regular basis.
Several noninvasive devices (that do not require an actual blood sample) are currently being researched to provide persons with diabetes an alternative.
However, most noninvasive blood glucose monitoring devices have not yet been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
Some noninvasive devices currently under investigation include the use of infrared light to shine through the forearm or finger; the use of low-level electrical currents to draw blood up through the skin; and the use of saliva or tears to measure glucose levels
Always consult your physician for more information.
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