Can Dogs Smell Diabetes?

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Introduction

Animals have a keen sense of what we are feeling, but research in the past several decades has demonstrated that dogs are able to sense several changes in our physiology even before we do. The human anatomy, while puzzling, puts forward chemical changes dogs can sense, particularly so if they are trained to do so. 

Dogs have been trained to assist humans with all sorts of medical conditions ranging from blindness to mobility issues. In this article, we explore the possibility of dogs smelling changes in blood sugar for diabetics. We will investigate how it is they are able to do this, and what benefits it provides.

Signs & Body Language to Look for

Dogs that are able to sense drops in blood sugar will usually react with body language that reads as discomfort or anxiety depending on their level of training. If the animal is trained specifically on hypoglycemic detection, they may respond in a very direct way of getting your attention such as pawing at you or jumping up on your knee.  

While it can vary greatly depending on the dog and the training they have had, here are some general signs to look for from a dog sensing a change in blood sugar. Dogs will usually nudge and bark in order to alert their owner. If they are not trained, yet still sense this change, dogs may also start guarding their human in the case that they lose consciousness. The dog will likely be very alert and unnerved when it senses an impending this change in blood sugar, which can be noticeable in the overall demeanor of the animal. This demeanor will likely read as concern or anxiousness.

Reading a dog’s body language is of the utmost importance in both training a dog to alert to low blood sugar and making sure that you do not miss the signs. These signs might vary from breed to breed, and some are more skilled in sensing changes in blood sugar. Often times Retrievers or Labs are used as detection dogs due to their size and quick learning capabilities.

Body Language

Below are some signs that a dog may give you if they sense a change in blood sugar levels:
  • Alert
  • Barking
  • Guarding
  • Jumping up

Other Signs

Some other signs dogs may give include:
  • Acting Restless
  • Barking Until Someone Else Responds
  • Carrying Out a Trained Behavior

History of Diabetic Alert Dogs

Diabetes is a disorder under which the pancreas does not produce insulin. This disorder, caused by genetics, illness, or lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise comes in two types. Some cases are more severe than others, and usually, diabetic alert dogs are recommended for those that are entirely insulin dependent because falls in blood sugar can happen rapidly without the person noticing.  

Diabetic alert dogs have been used for many years, but little research has been completed on just how efficient they are for the exorbitantly high price tag.  These dogs are also usually equipped to get medical assistance in the case of an emergency.

There have been several case studies in recent years interrogating the efficiency of glycemia alert animals, particularly for patients with type 1 diabetes. Despite their owners exhibiting the utmost confidence in their faithful companions, researchers frequently found that these alert dogs were only able to alert around 40% of the time before a significant drop was seen.  

In comparison to technological devices, like a continuous glucose monitor (CGM), designed for this task with an efficiency rate of 70%, it is difficult to say with certainty that an alert dog is the best option. That said, these alert dogs provide a comfort and peace of mind that devices cannot provide through the power of companionship. Similar to dogs trained to alert on seizures, it is recommended that glycemic alert dogs are used as a supplementary precaution.

The Science of Dogs Smelling Diabetes

The science behind a dog’s ability to detect a drop in blood sugar is absolutely fascinating. There are many different theories as to why dogs can detect this drop in blood sugar, but the most frequent one rests on the production of isoprene. 

Research shows that dogs have this unique ability because of their highly sensitive sense of smell.  When an individual’s blood sugar drops, there are spikes of the chemical isoprene in their breath. While it is disputed why this increase is observed, it is suggested that dogs are able to smell this change of chemical makeup on a person’s breath as they exhale.  

It is also debatable that dogs are able to sense a subtle change in a human’s demeanor, such as sweating or shaking, that signals them to alert on a drop in blood sugar.

Training a Diabetic Alert Animal

Like many diseases dogs have been linked to being able to detect, there is a clear gap between scientific fact and the reality. This consideration makes it difficult to train dogs for these tasks because trainers may struggle in knowing what to look for in both the human and the dog.  

If glycemia alert dogs are being formally trained by an organization specializing in this field, the training strategies are rigorous. Dogs are first introduced to the jacket they will wear, which can hold anything from an emergency panic button to quick sources of glucose for consumption. These animals are rewarded through positive reinforcement and treats to paw at or nudge their handlers as soon as they begin sensing a drop in blood sugar. Similar to how drug dogs are trained, these animals are encouraged to explore a variety of different smells in order to learn which ones they will be rewarded for alerting to.

It is not recommended to try and train any dog to do this kind of work, as it takes a highly skilled animal to provide this service with accuracy. That said, some people report that their dog sometimes alerts on blood sugar drops without ever having been trained to do so. 

In the early stages of owning a diabetic alert dog, it is critical to keep record of every time they alert and check their accuracy. Owners should be diligent in recording any false alerts, as this may be a sign of a need for extra training.

Safety Tips When Using a Dog to Detect Blood Sugar Levels

  • Do not replace your medication with a dog's senses.
  • Always rely on a more accurate method.
  • Look out for false alerts!

Tell Us About Your Hypoglycemia-Detecting Pooch!