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A Diabetes Patient’s Best Friend: Dogs May Help Sniff Out Hypoglycemic Episodes

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Dogs are known for their keen sense of smell. Now, that animal instinct just may have a new medical purpose, UPI reports.

A new study suggests that dog may be able to help keep type 1 diabetes’ blood sugar level from decreasing to dangerous lows by using their sense of smell to detect if a hypoglycemic attack is starting.

Researchers in England state that teaching dogs to detect high levels of chemicals in human breath during a hypoglycemic episode might stop dangerous health complications in diabetic patients.

People diagnosed with type 1 diabetes have systems that are unable to produce the right amount of insulin, causing their blood sugar levels to fluctuate. They are required to test their blood often daily to make sure their sugar levels are normal.

Hypoglycemic episodes can happen without warning, scientists and doctors confirm. Hypoglycemia results in disorientation, shakiness, fatigue, sometimes even seizures or unconsciousness if the episode lasts a long time.

There have been reports of dogs warning their owners of blood glucose changes, including one from a pediatric diabetes specialist nurse Claire Pesterfield. Based on these, researchers at the University of Cambridge began testing on the chemical changes that the dogs might have been detecting.

In Pesterfield’s case, her dog, Magic, had been trained to tell when her blood sugar drops to low levels, alerting her to mostly minor hypoglycemic attacks, even when she was asleep. This allowed her to test her blood immediately and rectify her sugar levels.

“Low blood sugar is an everyday threat to me and if it falls too low – which it can do quickly – it can be very dangerous,” Pesterfield says. She adds that Magic’s abilities have been crucial.

Magic is incredible – he’s not just a wonderful companion, but he’s my ‘nose’ to warn me if I’m at risk of a hypo. If he smells a hypo coming, he’ll jump up and put his paws on my shoulders to let me know.

The researchers studied eight women with type 1 diabetes, aged 41 to 51, who have been receiving diabetes treatments for at least 16 years. While in a controlled environment, the researchers slowly lowered the women’s glucose then used a mass spectrometer to detect the chemicals in their breath that may indicate a change in blood sugar levels. They found that isoprene rose significantly during hypoglycemic episodes to double, in some cases.

The team reported that this might be what dogs can sense – something humans cannot, and this will help patients like Pesterfield.

Dr. Mark Evans, a physician at the University of Cambridge’s Addenbrooke’s Hospital, says, “It provides a ‘scent’ that could help us develop new tests for detecting hypoglycemia and reducing the risk of potentially life-threatening complications for patients living with diabetes.”

Aside from the potential of this new method of detecting the drop in glucose levels, the research team says they intend to look into a breath test for the said chemical, which they hope will replace finger-prick tests as an easier and cheaper alternative.

The study was published in Diabetes Care.  



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