Can Dogs Smell Low Blood Sugar In People With Diabetes?

By Allegra Ringo

We all know dogs have an excellent sense of smell. That's why they're trained to detect things like bombs and narcotics. But did you know that dogs can sniff out something as subtle as low blood sugar?

Can dogs smell low blood sugar in people with diabetes?
Can dogs smell low blood sugar in people with diabetes?
credit: Diabetic Alert Dogs

Enter diabetic alert dogs, dogs who are trained to alert their diabetic owners when their blood sugar is too low or too high. From the organization Diabetic Alert Dogs of America:

"Diabetic Alert Dogs are trained to alert diabetic owners in advance of low (hypoglycemia) or high (hyperglycemia) blood sugar events before they become dangerous." Their owners can then take steps to normalize their blood sugar.

But how do dogs know what's going on with our blood sugar? According to Diabetic Alert Dogs of America, "Our bodies are a unique makeup of organic chemicals - all of which have very specific smells. Low and high blood sugar levels, or hypoglycemia/ hyperglycemia, release chemicals in the body that have a distinct odor that is undetectable by humans." Dog noses are vastly superior to ours, and they can pick up smells that our noses don't know exist. Scientists estimate that a dog's sense of smell is 10,000 to 100,000 times as acute as ours.

According to PBS' Nova, dogs "possess up to 300 million olfactory receptors in their noses, compared to about six million in us. And the part of a dog's brain that is devoted to analyzing smells is, proportionally speaking, 40 times greater than ours." Plus, dog noses function differently than ours. We humans smell and breathe through the same airways in our nose, but dogs have a small flap of tissue in their noses that separates the different functions. When dogs inhale, their airflow splits into two different paths: one for smelling, and one for breathing.

When diabetic alert dogs are in training, they're taught to "alert" when they detect an abnormality in blood sugar. Typically, the dog will give a signal like putting his or her paw on their handler, or in some cases, bringing them the device they need to test their blood sugar. The handler can then test their blood sugar and take the steps to correct it. The same training concept is used with police dogs, human remains detection dogs, and any other dogs that detect things for a living. With all of these dogs, the goal is for the dog to know to tell its handler when a certain smell is present.

Spikes or drops in blood sugar can be life-threatening to a diabetic person, and there are many stories of diabetic alert dogs saving their owners' lives.

In March of 2016, 7-year-old Luke Nuttall was saved from having dangerously low blood sugar by his alert dog, Jedi. Luke was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 2, and his parents immediately began training Jedi as an alert dog. Five years later, Luke and Jedi are inseparable, and Jedi's detection skills have been invaluable to the Nuttall family.

If you're diabetic and would like to look into getting a service dog, check out Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers (SDWR) or Diabetic Alert Dogs of America for more information. Dogs, thank you for your service!