Zip the Dog’s Nose Knows Lows: Diabetes Alert Dog Saves a Life

That long snout on a typical dog is there for a very good reason. It gathers up scent molecules and sends them deep down to special sniffing cells that hold 25 times the number of scent receptors that we humans have.  Dogs can sense complex odors that are 100 million times weaker than our little noses can.  Among those scents is the chemical mix that bodies manufacture when they are getting dangerously low on blood sugar.

Karen Hayes, a 45-year-old Mississippian with a warm southern accent and a long history of type 1, knew nothing about hypo-sniffing dogs when she got Zip, her beloved toy poodle. Six weeks old when she brought him home, Zip was already fetching a week later. Karen knew then that she had something special and she was right: when he was seven months old, Zip saved her life.

The day before it happened, Karen held a family party and had a busy day full of swimming and eating shrimp. That night, her husband Peter took a Benadryl for a horsefly bite, and the couple went to sleep with Zip, as always, between them on the bed.  At about 1:30 a.m., Peter was awakened from his heavy slumber by the persistent whimpering of Zip, who was pawing at his face. Once Peter was awake, Zip immediately rushed to Karen and started whining.  When Peter reached over to touch her, he found she was sweating profusely, cold, and pale, and he couldn’t wake her up. By the time the ambulance arrived, Karen’s blood sugar was 31 mg/dl. Zip stayed right by Karen’s left shoulder and wouldn’t budge throughout the entire incident.

Since that time, Zip has alerted Karen to low blood sugars three more times when she’s been asleep.  Each time, her blood glucose has been about 50 mg/dl.  Twice he’s alerted her when she was awake, and she’s had blood sugar of around 47.

Although Zip taught himself, there are a number of organizations in existence that train diabetes alert dogs. They teach the dogs to distinguish the subtle changes in odor of sweat and breath that are associated with low blood sugar, and to respond by alerting others when it happens. Dogs4Diabetics is a non-profit located in Concord, California. Great Plains Assistance Dogs Foundation is based in North Dakota.  Heaven Scent Paws, in Missouri, trains dogs and also sells training materials with which you can home-train your own dog.

The need for such dogs is greater than these organization are able to keep up with. Parents of diabetic children are especially interested, because they often have to check their child’s blood sugar several times during the night. Many parents would love to have the security of a dependable dog in their child’s room, ready to alert them if their child’s blood sugar were to go low.  Continuous glucose monitors are becoming available, it’s true, but they’re just not very cuddly. Certainly, Karen wouldn’t trade Zip for all the CGMs in the world. As she says, “He’s just a once-in-a-lifetime dog.”

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