Diabetes treatment has seen a renaissance in the last decade or so, with every year bringing new and exciting developments and technology. From automated insulin pumps that eliminate the need for constant injections to super-accurate and almost painless blood glucose level meters that have made testing super easy. We’ve even helped in our own small way with Timesulin insulin pen caps!
Still, none of the developments are as adorable, semi-practical, and (some would say) odd as hypoglycemia-detecting dogs. You read that right – specially-trained dogs that can detect blood glucose levels that fall outside of the normal range. A new study has demonstrated that the dogs could sniff out the subtle changes brought on by hypoglycemia at a rate significantly better than just chance.
The study, conducted with 17 trained dogs, is the first of its kind. There are lots of anecdotes in the diabetic community of pets (especially dogs) that were able to save the lives of their owners by warning them when they were at a dangerous blood glucose level. Up until now, however, there hasn’t been any solid evidence to back those stories up. Of course, dog lovers have never REALLY needed evidence, but it’s good that we’ve finally got some.
So why is this such a big deal? Because the practical applications for people with diabetes can be huge. The 17 participants in the study reported significantly fewer negative effects of hypoglycemia. Conditions like emergency calls and fainting or unconscious episodes were markedly lower in the group undergoing the testing than would have otherwise been expected in their groups. The test subjects ranged in age from 5 to 65, and came from all walks of life, so it was a fairly diverse crowd.
Almost more important than the physical health benefits, nearly every subject in the experimental group reported huge quality of life increases. They were happier. They were more satisfied with their diabetes treatment program. They reported more independence. These kinds of quality of life implications are hard to quantify, but can make a world of difference to someone undergoing a treatment plan for managing their diabetes and blood glucose levels.
This study is also important as a way to push future research into new directions. One avenue is identifying how exactly dogs are able to detect when a hypoglycemic episode is about to take place. Identifying the exact compounds that are released and how they are detected could possibly lead to new forms of blood glucose meters and hypo- (and possibly hyper-) glycemic warning devices. Imagine a world where instead of pricking your finger, you breathe onto a device that can reliably and accurately tell you what your current blood sugar level is, or at least if you are about to enter a dangerous range.
It also opens up more avenues of research on using service animals as part of a treatment plan for diabetes. With the considerable benefit that animals have already shown to have on people suffering from hypertension and stress, this can be a huge boon to people struggling with diabetes or related conditions. Research that uncovers a reliable and accurate training program to help create “diabetes dogs” for the general population of people with diabetes can go a long way to making the condition much easier to deal with. And certainly much cuter than carrying around a blood glucose monitor!