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Alert dogs help diabetes patients to regulate insulin, finds first large-scale study of its kind

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Trained alert dogs can help those living with type 1 diabetes to regulate their insulin, according to new research from a UK university and a charity.

The University of Bristol, in collaboration with Medical Detection Dogs, carried out the first large-scale evaluation of using medical detection dogs to detect hypoglycaemia.

“Our study provides the first large-scale evaluation of using medical detection dogs to detect hypoglycaemia”

Nicola Rooney

The study, published on Tuesday in the journal PLOS One, reports that the best trained alert dogs can improve the quality of life for patients with type 1 diabetes and can help people living with the condition to take action when blood sugar levels drop too low.

The Medical Detection Dogs charity trains pet dogs to respond to the odour of human disease and the animals are conditioned to respond with alerting behaviours when their owners’ blood sugar levels fall outside of a target range.

In this study, researchers from Bristol assessed the reliability of 27 trained glycaemia alert dogs, whose owners provided six to 12 weeks’ worth of blood records detailing every time the dog was alerted.

It found that, on average, trained dogs alerted their owners to 83% of hypoglycaemic episodes in over 4,000 hypo and hyperglycaemic episodes that were examined.

“With a highly refined sense of smell, why shouldn’t they be able to detect changes in our personal health?”

Claire Guest

Therefore, the findings confirm that alert dogs can help type 1 diabetes patients regulate their blood glucose in a non-invasive way and can avoid the risks of hypoglycaemic episodes and hyperglycaemia, said those behind the study. 

The reseachers noted that being alerted by a medical detection dog when an out-of-range sugar level episode occurs encouraged patients to take appropriate action to avoid the risks resulting from a hypoglycaemic episode.

They also highlighted that patients with more severe diabetes and quicker drops in glucose levels – as rated by their instructors in Severity of client’s diabetes and Speed of drop in client’s glucose – tended to have dogs performing with greater sensitivity, especially to low glucose levels.

They suggested that this could be down to the charity deliberately selecting dogs with better potential to work with more vulnerable patients or could be that dogs living in such situations learn to function better.

Individual characteristics of the dog, the partnership and the household were “significantly associated with performance” the study report stated. It also noted that whether its partner was an adult or child had an impact on performance.

Medical Detection Dogs

Diabetes Dogs

Source: Jon Stockham, Apple Photography

Lead study author Dr Nicola Rooney, from the Bristol Veterinary School, said: “We already know from previous studies that patients’ quality of life is vastly improved by having a medical detection dog.”

“However, to date, evidence has come from small scale studies,” she said. “Our study provides the first large-scale evaluation of using medical detection dogs to detect hypoglycaemia.”

Dr Rooney, a teaching fellow in animal welfare and behaviour, also said: “Our research shows a dog’s effectiveness is affected by the individual dog and its connection with its human partner.”

She added: “Since the usage of such dogs is growing, it’s important that any dogs used for these purposes are professionally trained, matched and monitored by professional organisations like Medical Detection Dogs. It’s also vital that research continues both to assess true efficacy and determine ways to optimise their performance.”

Dr Claire Guest, chief executive and co-founder of Medical Detection Dogs, said the research findings were “fantastic news” for those living with type 1 diabetes.

She said: “Medical detection dogs primarily serve patients looking for more effective and independent ways of managing their condition.

“Our dogs also serve the wider medical community by offering proactive solutions that are natural, non-invasive and have been shown to provide countless psychological benefits,” she said.

She added: “As our natural companions, and with a highly refined sense of smell, why shouldn’t they be able to detect changes in our personal health?”

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