Diabetic alert dogs sniff out dangerous blood sugar levels

|     Birgitta von Gyldenfeldt     |

“LILITH, go find sugar!” The Labrador Retriever, lying quietly on the driveway of a family home in the German town of Eckernfoerde, leaps to her feet and around the corner towards three T-shirts placed side by side on the ground.

She sniffs at them, grabs one and runs back to her mistress, Stephanie Klameth.

Lilith is a diabetic alert dog. She has picked out a T-shirt previously worn by a diabetic suffering from low blood sugar (hypoglycemia).

If Lilith detects chemical signals of incipient hypoglycemia in her mistress, she’s been trained to respond by fetching Klameth a sugary drink. Were Klameth to become incapacitated, she would use her paw to press a large alarm button to summon help.

Diabetes is a chronic metabolic disease in which the body is unable to properly produce or use insulin, a hormone that helps to get glucose – or sugar – from food into cells for use as energy.

Stephanie Klameth, who suffers from Type 1 diabetes, has devoted her career to training diabetes alert dogs. Her own dog, Lilith, was one of her early recruits. – PHOTOS: DPA
Diabetic alert dog Lilith waits patiently for instructions on the driveway of her owner, Stephanie Klameth
Diabetic alert dog Lilith can sense when her owner’s blood sugar is too low or too high, and has been trained to respond accordingly

The disease results in elevated levels of blood sugar (hyperglycemia), which over time seriously damages the heart, blood vessels, eyes, kidneys and nerves.

According to the World Health Organization, 422 million adults worldwide have it, and it’s directly responsible for some 1.6 million deaths a year.

There are two main types of diabetes: Type 1, once known as juvenile diabetes; and Type 2, which is more common and largely the result of excess body weight and physical inactivity.

Hypoglycemia can occur in people with diabetes who, for example, take too much insulin or diabetes medication, skip a meal, or exercise harder than usual. It can lead to seizures and loss of consciousness.

Klameth was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes when she was 10. Her teenage years were difficult, said the now 45-year-old, because the disease upset her career plans.

“I wanted to be a police officer, but with diabetes I definitely couldn’t.”

So she trained to be a nurse and later made use of her disease by becoming a diabetes adviser, helping others to cope with the condition. Years ago she trained her Labrador retriever to be a diabetic alert dog, and now she trains other dog-diabetic teams.

Dr Jens Kroeger, executive board chairman of the Berlin-based NGO German Diabetes Aid, is a fan of diabetic alert dogs. “A lot of patients are delighted with them,” he said.

The dogs are trained to alert diabetics in advance of hypoglycemia or hyperglycemia events before they become dangerous.

The main focus is on hypoglycemia, which is more dangerous than hyperglycemia and – advantageously for the dogs – increases perspiration.

To train the dogs, diabetics are asked to collect shirts worn during times when they had normal blood sugar levels, and low levels.

It doesn’t take very long to condition the dogs to distinguish between the odours of the two phases, Klameth said.

The real work comes afterwards, when they have to learn what to do when they smell incipient hypoglycemia.

In Klameth’s experience, dogs need up to a year and a half before they’re fully trained, and repeated refresher training follows.

Training a diabetic alert dog is rather expensive. In the northern German state of Schleswig-Holstein, the price ranges from 3,000 to 10,000 euros (about US$3,500 to US$11,800). – dpa