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Pets' Amazing Abilities

Can they detect cancer, predict seizures, and warn about low blood sugar?

Dogs That Sniff Low Blood Sugar continued...

Mark Ruefenacht, a diabetes patient and the founder of Dogs4Diabetics in California, says his group has trained dogs for years to sniff subtle scent changes associated with low blood glucose and alert the person to the problem. He believes any dog with a good nose has the capacity to detect the changes. As with any scent-based training, you can never expect a dog to be 100%, but “they can have a very, very high success rate,” Ruefenacht says.

Lawrence Myers, DVM, PhD, an expert in canine scent detection at Auburn University College of Veterinary Medicine, says it’s “plausible” that dogs would be able to detect the odor associated with low blood sugar, since “they can see and smell all sorts of things we don’t.” However, he cautions that there is “a lack of reliable data ... that confirms that they are doing that, and doing that reliably.”

Dogs That Predict Seizures

Doctors can’t explain it, but some patients with epilepsy report that their dogs are able to tell them when a seizure is coming.

Jennifer Arnold, founder of Canine Assistants in Georgia, tells service-dog recipients there’s no way to train the animals to predict seizures -- only to respond once they occur. But she says about nine out of 10 of the service dogs her organization has placed develop the ability on their own within a year of placement.

“It really doesn’t seem to be terribly difficult,” Arnold says. “Dogs alert in different ways ... Most of them become visibly distressed in some way. They will start licking their person or pawing at them. It’s extremely common for the dog to tug their person toward the ground, as if they want them to lie down.”

The difficult part is determining what the dogs are reacting to, doctors say. Some people believe the dogs are picking up on a scent change, while others speculate they’re detecting an electrical signal or subtle behavioral change that occurs before the seizure, says neurologist Joseph Sirven, MD, editor-in-chief of Epilepsy.com and chair-elect of the Epilepsy Foundation professional advisory board.

“It’s a phenomenon, but we don’t know exactly what’s being registered,” Sirven says. “Evidence -- that’s hard to come by.”

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