A recent UK study examined how medical alert dogs can help patients with type 1 diabetes manage symptoms and monitor insulin levels.
Type 1 diabetes is a condition in which the pancreas is unable to produce insulin, the hormone that helps regulate blood sugar levels. As a result, diabetic patients undergo therapy to help manage insulin levels. For many people with diabetes, insulin management can be difficult and presents a host of side effects. Hypoglycaemia, also known as low blood sugar, is one common side effect of insulin therapy in patients with type 1 diabetes.
Low blood sugar levels can cause serious symptoms in diabetic patients if untreated, and may result in death. Many diabetic patients maintain high blood sugar levels or manipulate insulin injections for fear of hypoglycaemic episodes. Hypoglycaemia can be difficult to detect, and a number of technologies have been developed to help patients manage blood sugar and insulin levels. In a recent PLOS One study, UK researchers explored the use of alert dogs as a non-invasive approach to monitor for hypoglycaemia.
Alert dogs sense odours when blood sugar levels fall outside of target
The study looked at how accurately glycaemia alert dogs could detect symptoms of hypoglycaemia in patients with type 1 diabetes. Patients recorded blood sugar levels detailing each time the dog alerted them of symptoms. The dogs were trained by Medical Detection Dogs in the UK to respond to changes in their owner’s odour to sense when blood sugar levels fell outside of a target range. They could then alert their owner to administer treatment. To be accredited, dogs must be able to detect hypoglycaemic episodes with 75% accuracy with less than 15% false alerts over three consecutive months.
Dogs were more accurate detecting hypoglycemic episodes
In total, nearly 4,200 hypo- and hyper-glycaemic episodes were recorded, and 27 alert dogs were evaluated in the study. On average, the dogs detected 83% of hypoglycaemic episodes. The dogs were less accurate in sensing hyperglycaemia (67% of episodes), but were overall effective in detecting out-of-range episodes. The authors note that the performance of alert dogs depends on good initial and ongoing training, in addition to the compatibility of the dog with their owner and working conditions.
This large-scale study shows promise for patients with type 1 diabetes. Medical alert dogs provide an effective and non-invasive way for patients to monitor blood sugar changes and maintain insulin levels. More large-scale studies are needed to confirm the sensitivity of diabetic alert dogs, but the results are positive for this serious and difficult to manage disease.
Written by Braydon Black, BSc
- Diabetes Canada. Living with type 1 diabetes [Internet]. Toronto, ON: Diabetes Canada;[unknown date] [cited 2019 Feb 9]. Available from: https://www.diabetes.ca/diabetes-and-you/living-with-type-1-diabetes
- Rooney NJ, Guest CM, Swanson LCM, Morant SV. How effective are trained dogs at alerting their owners to changes in blood glycaemic levels?: variations in performance of glycaemia alert dogs. PLoS One [Internet]. 2019 Jan [cited 2019 Feb 9];14(1):e0210092. Available from https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0210092 doi: https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0210092