Study confirms dogs' effectiveness in alerting diabetic owners about hypoglycemia

Knowledge of dogs' prowess at helping diabetic owners manage their blood sugar levels has so far been based mainly on anecdotal evidence.

Now, the first study has been published that actually demonstrates how effective specially trained dogs can be at alerting owners of impending hypoglycemia.

According to the study published in PLOS ONE, researchers in the U.K. devised a study where they monitored 17 diabetic owners who were paired with dogs that had trained by a local charity to alert owners of low blood sugar levels. 

"Trained alerting behaviors include licking, pawing, jumping, staring, vocalizing, and even fetching a blood testing kit," researchers wrote. "Charities claim that the dogs are effective at facilitating tightened glycemic control, and thus reducing hypoglycemic episodes, nocturnal lows, and paramedic call outs. This study is the first to assess these claims empirically."

The researchers relied on the dogs' owners to share information about how effective the dogs were at  keeping the owners within healthy blood sugar ranges. Researchers also examined owners' blood test results from before and after obtaining the trained dogs. 

Study indicates that glycemia alert dogs are indeed beneficial

According to the study, all 17 of the dogs' owners said they would not change their decision to get a glycemia alert dog based on perceived health benefits they experienced, which included:

  • Fewer paramedic calls
  • Fewer unconscious episodes
  • Greater independence

Researchers reported that 15 of the human study participants said they trusted their dog to alert them to low blood sugar levels, and 13 also trusted them to detect high blood sugar levels.

"This study points to the potential value of alert dogs, for increasing glycemic control, client independence, and consequent quality of life, and even reducing the costs of long-term health care," researchers said in the study.

Future research plans

Although armed with new insights into how effective glycemia alert dogs are, researchers say more research is needed to determine exactly how dogs can sense hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia.

They say the dogs' acute sense of smell is likely what helps them detect changes in blood sugar levels, but "research is now required to determine the precise cues used and to identify any odor signature involved."

Read the full study at PLOS ONE

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