Date Published: 20 August 2013

Can trained dogs provide reliable early warnings to help monitor blood sugar levels?

Health News from Bristol, England (UK).
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Scientific studies indicate that appropriately trained dogs could provide valuable 'early-warning' information for patients with diabetes.

Dogs trained to respond to their handler's hypoglycaemia could provide a very effective way to alert diabetic patients to lowering blood sugar levels. A recent study funded by The Company of Animals and conducted by experts at Bristol University (England) set out investigate whether or not trained dogs could be used as a reliable early-warning system to monitor glycaemia control. The study involved specially trained 'glycaemia alert dogs' and considered if they were able to accurately and consistently detect the signs of low/high blood sugar in the person they were monitoring and alert that person when glycaemic levels outside the target range were detected. The 17 dogs involved in the study had been trained by Medical Detection Dogs to alert their person/patient when his or her blood sugars were out of target range. While some dogs had been specifically chosen for their potential to work as a 'glycaemia alert dog' and in most cases donated to and then trained by the charity, some of the dogs were clients' pets that had been trained in situ.

The research team collected data from the people who worked with the dogs on a daily basis. They used this information to objectively assess whether trained dogs responded reliably to the hypoglycaemic state of the person they monitored, and whether those people experienced tightened glycaemic control, and wider psychosocial benefits.

The research results indicate that since working with a suitably trained dog, all of the 17 people studied reported positive effects including reduced paramedic call outs, decreased unconscious episodes and improved independence. The data indicates that the dogs alerted their owners, with significant, though variable, accuracy at times of both low and high blood sugar.

Dr Nicola Rooney, Research Fellow at Bristol University's School of Veterinary Sciences, said:

" Despite considerable resources having been invested in developing electronic systems to facilitate tightened glycaemic control, current equipment has numerous limitations. These findings are important as they show the value of trained dogs and demonstrate that glycaemia alert dogs placed with clients living with diabetes, afford significant improvements to owner well-being including increased glycaemic control, client independence and quality-of-life and potentially could reduce the costs of long-term health care."

Further details of this study are available online (at Brief summary notes from the university include:

  • 8 of the 10 ten dogs (for which owners provided adequate records) responded consistently more often when their owner's blood sugars were reported to be outside, than within, target range.
  • 9 of the people's routine records of their glycaemic levels indicated significant overall change after receiving their dogs.
  • 7 of the people recorded a significantly higher proportion of routine tests within target range, i.e. at a healthy level, after receiving their medical detection dog.
  • The study confirmed that trained detection dogs perform above chance level.

However, the true benefits may be even greater. It is interesting to note Dr Rooney's further comments about the study. Specifically, she said that :

" Some of the owners also describe their dogs respond even before their blood sugars are low but as they start to drop, so it is possible that the dogs are even more effective than this study suggests. While it is believed that dogs use their acute sense of smell to detect changes in the chemical composition of their owner's sweat or breath to respond to glycaemic control, further research is now needed to further understand how dogs carry out this amazing task."

Ref. to Paper
'Investigation into the Value of Trained Glycaemia Alert Dogs to Clients with Type I Diabetes' by Nicola J. Rooney, Steve Morant and Claire Guest is published in the journal PLOS ONE.

Source: Bristol University, England (UK)

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