Sniffing out disease: diabetes-alert dogs are on the rise

  • Updated: August 30, 2013 - 1:03 PM

A dog’s snout is a powerful weapon. So strong, in fact, that pooches trained to smell low blood sugar are being used to manage diabetes.

For 27 years, Sarah Breidenbach had a foolproof way of knowing when her blood sugar level was dangerously low.

Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes as a child, she could spot the early warning signs — feeling shaky and anxious.

Then one night, her internal detection system failed. While sleeping, her blood sugar level plummeted, causing a violent seizure that sent her to the hospital. Her body recovered, but her inner monitor did not.

Over the next 18 months, paramedics made 178 trips to her home.

That’s when her doctor prescribed an unusual tool to help manage her diabetes: a dog.

Enter Moxie, a 5-year-old service dog who sits at her St. Paul owner’s side around the clock. The black Labrador can tell when Breidenbach’s blood sugar is too high or too low — just by smelling her breath.

While still rare, diabetes alert dogs are an emerging segment in the larger service dog industry, which for decades has helped people manage such health issues as blindness, hearing impairment and autism. Can Do Canines, a training organization in New Hope, estimates that there are 150 diabetes alert dogs nationwide. Earlier this summer, the group hosted a conference that drew dog trainers from around the world.

“We can’t train as many dogs as we want or as many as are needed,” said Alan Peters, founder of Can Do Canines. Other local trainers include Pawsitive Perspectives Assistance Dogs in Savage and Scent Angels in Eden Prairie.

Using her powerful sniffer, Moxie is able to detect a distinct odor brought on by changes in her owner’s blood sugar. When she smells it, the dog goes into alert mode. She jumps, she whines loudly, she paces and stares directly into Breidenbach’s eyes until her owner relents and checks her blood sugar.

“It’s crazy what they can do,” Breidenbach said of alert dogs like Moxie. “I lost that intuition when I had that insulin reaction, and somehow she’s got it now.”

Dogs show promise, limits

An estimated 23.6 million Americans, or 7.8 percent of the population, have diabetes. Of that number, 10 percent have Type 1 diabetes — the most severe kind. Those who have had the disease for decades can develop “hypoglycemia unawareness,” or the inability to tell when their blood sugar is rapidly dropping, doctors say.

There are electronic monitors to help keep tabs on blood sugar levels. But many diabetics with hypoglycemia unawareness report that their monitors can be late in alerting them. The dogs, they say, let them know very early.

Peters was moved to train diabetes-detecting dogs after a conversation he had that still haunts him. In 1994, he was speaking with a deaf woman with Type 1 diabetes who asked him if her hearing dog could be trained to help her monitor her blood sugar. Peters told the Minneapolis woman he couldn’t help her. He learned later that her blood sugar dropped suddenly one night, causing a grave insulin episode. She died in her sleep.

Dr. Melena Bellin, a pediatric endocrinologist at the University of Minnesota who studies diabetes, said that while the dogs show promise, there is no scientific evidence yet on their effectiveness. She cautioned against owners relying solely on the dogs as their monitoring tool.

“It is not a substitute for checking blood sugar,” she said.

Bellin is currently working with Can Do Canines and diabetics with alert dogs to study the issue. So far, she said, the dogs appear to be alerting their diabetic owners when their blood sugar was low or dropping fast.

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  • Sarah Breidenbach’s service dog, Moxie, can sense when her blood sugar is too low. Breidenbach nearly died one night when she had a seizure while sleeping and unable to sense the drop herself.

  • Moxie

  • Sarah Breidenbach plays a game of fetch with Moxie outside her St. Paul home. She hasn’t had to call paramedics since Moxie arrived.

  • where to find diabetes-alert dogs

    A sampling of Minnesota organizations that train diabetes-alert dogs.

    Can Do Canines: A fundraiser event will be held from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. on Sept. 7 at the group’s office in New Hope. can-do-canines.org

    Pawsitive Perspectives Assistance Dogs: pawpads.org

    Scent Angels: scentangels.com

    Allie Shah

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