Dogs Could Be a Diabetic's Best Friend

By Maryann Mott
HealthDay Reporter
Sunday, February 3, 2008; 12:00 AM

SUNDAY, Feb. 3 (HealthDay News) -- Irish researchers hope to prove that a dog's keen sense of smell gives it the ability to watch over the blood sugar levels of diabetics.

Canines have already shown themselves capable of leading the blind, alerting the deaf, and helping the physically disabled with daily tasks.

But researchers at Queen's University in Belfast, Northern Ireland, are taking the "helpful companion" idea one step further by gathering scientific evidence that could verify dogs can reliably detect dangerous blood sugar level drops in diabetics.

"Anecdotal reports suggest that some dogs can perform early warning of hypoglycemia by using their sense of smell to 'sniff out' if their owner's blood sugar levels are dropping," said lead researcher and psychology professor Deborah Wells.

More than 20 million U.S. children and adults have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Those with the disease do not produce enough insulin, a hormone the body needs to convert sugars, starches and other food into energy.

Diabetics must test their blood glucose level regularly, even sometimes in the middle of the night to avoid the peaks and valleys that can cause organ failure, say experts.

Wells hopes to find out what cues dogs pick up on so they can officially be recognized and trained as early-warning systems for diabetics.

At least two organizations in the United States already train dogs to detect low glucose levels. But exactly what the canines notice when a person experiences a blood sugar low is still a mystery, said Mark Ruefenacht, founder of Dogs for Diabetics, in Concord, Calif.

The organization is working with a forensic laboratory to identify a possible odor.

"We just haven't come up with the right answers," he said. "Every time we think we have the answer, we find that we don't."

Ruefenacht, a diabetic, started the organization three years ago, inspired after a puppy he was raising for Guide Dogs for the Blind woke him one night. Ruefenacht forgot to check his blood sugar before going to sleep, and he thinks he had a seizure that alarmed the pup.

Since then, the all-volunteer group has placed 30 trained canines in the homes of Northern California residents with type 1 diabetes.

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