Dog DiabetesFor people with insulin-dependent diabetes, hypoglycemia (low blood glucose) can be an emergency. Drops in glucose, the body’s main energy source, may occur suddenly and lead to seizures and loss of consciousness. Because the signs of hypoglycemia can be subtle, diabetics may not think to test their blood sugar levels. Continuous glucose monitors, tiny sensors inserted under the skin, can help, but not everyone has access to them.

As a non-invasive alternative, trained diabetes alert dogs (DADs) can warn owners of low glucose levels so they can remedy the problem or get help.

Get a Whiff of This

How can dogs detect changes in a person’s blood? They’re trained to put their high-powered noses to work. When blood glucose drops, people exhale a compound called isoprene, according to a study in Diabetes Care. Researchers asked diabetic women to breathe into a bag when their blood glucose was low and when it was normal. Isoprene levels increased in exhaled breath only when the women’s blood sugar was low. Dogs are trained to differentiate this scent from others presented to them and given a positive reward when they correctly identify it. They are then trained to alert their handler by nudging the person with their nose, jumping up on them or bringing them a toy or other object.

Over time, it’s possible that the dogs also pick up subtle behavior signs from their owners that may be associated with the scent.

Not-for-profit and For-profit Training

Like other types of service dogs, DADs undergo extensive training. The dogs –often Labrador retrievers- are usually bred specifically for the job and require about a year of socialization and behavior training so they’re comfortable and well behaved around various people and public places.

It usually takes another six to twelve months for the dog to learn to identify the specific scent and notify the handler. All this specialized breeding and training can add up: A DAD can go for as much as $20,000, a cost that’s usually not picked up by health insurance. With the help of fundraising, some not-for-profit organizations provide diabetic people with low-cost or free DADs. But applicants can expect to wait in a long line, sometimes for as long as five years.

The wait is much shorter at for-profit providers of DADs, but that requires a significant investment by the owner.

Not a Replacement for Blood Testing

Despite the common use of DADs, there’s a dearth of scientific evidence to support just how accurate or reliable these dogs are. So blood glucose testing won’t go away any time soon. When used with traditional testing methods, DADs can give owners an added security blanket and potentially improve their quality of life.

In one survey of DAD owners, participants felt the dogs helped improve their glucose control, reduced their worry about hypoglycemia and enabled them to participate in more activities. Not surprisingly, responders also attributed a better quality of life to having the company of the dog, something all of us can appreciate.