Monday, June 22, 2009

For Diabetics, These Dogs Save Lives

For diabetics who own pets it comes as little surprise that dogs are being trained to warn diabetic owners when their blood glucose levels fall dangerously low. For diabetics who live alone and for young children, this is a big deal.

This phenomenon has been discussed in anecdotal incidences by diabetics in published letters to the American Diabetes Association monthly magazine for years. Man's best friend has been trained to sniff out certain cancer cells, illegal drugs and explosives.

A survey last December by researchers at Queen's University Belfast found 65 percent of 212 people with insulin-dependent diabetes reported that when they had a hypoglycemic episode their pets had reacted by whining, barking, licking or some other display.

At the Cancer and Bio-Detection Dogs research center in Aylesbury, southern England, animal trainers are putting that finding into practice and honing dogs' innate skills.

The training would seem a slam dunk based on my experience. For 13 years I lived alone in a motorhome with Honey, a mixed Australian Shepherd. Because of the cramped space, she knew every move I would make before I did. When my sugars ran low while asleep or at the dining table, she would begin licking my face and start whining. When I corrected the low sugars by drinking fruit juice or a candy bar, Honey would relax and with a heavy sigh slump to her favorite resting spot and fall to sleep.

Extremely low sugars untreated lead to comas and death.

"Dogs have been trained to detect certain odors down to parts per trillion, so we are talking tiny, tiny amounts. Their world is really very different to ours," Chief Executive Claire Guest of the detection center told Reuters TV.

The center was started five years ago by orthopedic surgeon Dr John Hunt, who wanted to investigate curious anecdotes about dogs pestering their owners repeatedly on parts of their body that were later found to be cancerous.

At around the same time, the first hard evidence was being gathered by researchers down the road at Amersham Hospital that dogs could identify bladder cancer from chemicals in urine.

The move into diabetes followed the case of Paul Jackson, who told Guest and her team about his dog Tinker who warns him when his sugar levels get too low and he is in danger of collapsing.

"It's generally licking my face, panting beside me," Jackson said.

The center now has trained 17 dogs accredited as diabetic sniffers.

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