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Diabetic alert dogs: How they help combat an invisible disease

Diabetic alert dogs are a new type of service dog that sense changes in blood glucose levels in their owners with type-1 diabetes.

Diabetic alert dogs: How they help combat an invisible disease

Eighteen years ago my friend Brooke was diagnosed with type-1 diabetes, a life-threatening condition that impedes her body’s ability to safely regulate its own blood glucose levels. Several months ago she began the process of obtaining a service dog to help maintain her health, and she was kind enough to answer a few questions about the process.

Why a service animal?

Since potentially dangerous changes in blood sugar often begin silently, before symptoms appear, Brooke has relied heavily on technology to maintain her blood glucose levels within safe parameters. For example, she owns a continuous glucose monitor that provides subcutaneous blood sugar measurements at 5-minute intervals via an app on her phone, and an insulin pump that lets her administer short-acting insulin as needed. Still, she says, there are drawbacks—one of which is that the monitor and the pump do not communicate with one another.  

How does one begin the process of obtaining a diabetic-alert dog?

After much online research and multiple queries to organizations that specialize in the training of these unique animals, Brooke learned that most diabetic-alert animals are obtained from breeders (some organizations breed their own animals, while others contract with outside breeders). Her research, however, drew her to an organization that trains rescue dogs specifically to become diabetic alert animals. The organization screened her carefully—inquiring about her prior experience with animals, other people in the home, and the environment where the animal would be living. She stressed that a service dog is not a pet—it is a working companion animal that bonds in a unique way to one person. 

How do dogs detect changing glucose levels in humans?

The short answer is scent. Anatomically, the canine nose is a complex array of whorls and membranes that are both highly sensitive and highly discerning when it comes to smells. Diabetic-alert dogs use this innate sensitivity to detect miniscule changes in the smell of human saliva, indicative of changes in blood glucose. Part of the process of familiarizing a service animal with a person involves the submission of saliva samples. Essentially the person provides several small samples of their saliva (each via a cotton ball in a glass container) to familiarize the animal with the individual scents associated with “normal,” “high,” and “low” blood sugar. The animal is then trained to recognize rapid changes in these scents that could indicate a sudden rise or fall in blood sugar. Training takes several months for each animal, and begins before the person and animal ever meet. Once trained, a service dog serves not only as a companion, but as a backup warning system if the technical devices fail or are ignored.

What do diabetic alert dogs do?    

In the event of an unsafe rise or drop in blood glucose level, the dog is trained to nudge Brooke’s hand with its muzzle. This could occur in the home, at work, or while traveling. Diabetic alert dogs, Brooke explained, are even trained to monitor you as you sleep. One of the most dangerous times to experience a sharp dip in blood sugar levels is during sleep, because such changes can impair one’s ability to wake and administer self-care. For this reason, the animal is trained to nudge the Brooke’s hand until she rouses and takes some steps toward self-care. In other words the dog will persist in alerting Brooke until she measures her glucose. Training and reinforcement of diabetic-alert dogs are essential and ongoing.  

What challenges face diabetic-alert dogs in public?

In public, a person’s medical needs are often not visible. Owners of diabetic-alert and seizure-alert dogs sometimes encounter resistance from store-owners about allowing the animal into the establishment. Under the Americans with Disabilities Act, it is a violation of Federal law to deny entry to a service animal. Also, owners are required only to disclose that the dog is a service animal and what behavior the dog is trained to do (e.g., “it will nudge my hand with its snout”). Owners are not required to divulge any information about their medical condition.

According to [a survey conducted by the American Pet Products Association (APPA), 13 percent of dog owners and 8 percent of cat owners receive some form of therapy or assistance from their pet. Brooke is looking forward to receiving her service dog sometime between December 2016 and April 2017.  

Cecily Kellogg is a pet lover who definitely has crazy cat lady leanings. Her pets are all shelter rescues, including the dog, who is scared of the cats. She spent eight years working as a Veterinary Technician before becoming a writer. Today she writes all over the web, including here at Figo.

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