We finally know how dogs sniff out diabetes
For years, assistance dogs have been used to detect low blood sugar levels in their diabetic owners and warn of an impending hypoglycemia attack. Scientists have finally figured out how dogs are able to accomplish this feat—an insight that could lead to new medical sensors. Dogs don’t so much see the world as they do smell it. Our canine companions can detect the tiniest odor concentrations—around one part per trillion. For us, that would be like detecting a teaspoon of sugar in two Olympic sized swimming pools. This allows them to work as medical detection dogs, where they sniff out various forms of cancer and diabetes.
In the case of diabetes, specially trained dogs can tell when their owner’s blood sugar level is low—a sign of a possible hypoglycemia attack. For people with type 1 diabetes, low blood sugar can cause problems like shakiness, disorientation, and fatigue. Failure to receive a sugar boost can lead to a seizure and even unconsciousness. For some, these episodes occur suddenly and with little warning. When a diabetes detection dog senses that their owner is in trouble, they notify them by performing a predetermined task, such as barking, laying down, or putting their paw on their shoulder.
But how do these dogs know? What is it, exactly, that they’re sensing or smelling? This question has mystified scientists for years, but a new study by researchers from the Wellcome Trust-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science and the University of Cambridge has finally provided the answer.