Sunday, 17 October 2021
728 x 90

Meet the medical alert dogs saving the lives of diabetics in SA

(By Catherine Rice, ANA)

Dogs are famous for their sense of smell and in South Africa, for the first time, that is being utilised to save lives of people battling a chronic condition…

Honey’s Garden, a non-profit organisation in Cape Town headed by Lucy Breytenbach, is training dogs to become medical alert assistance dogs for type 1 diabetics.

Type 1 diabetes is a complex chronic condition that usually strikes before the age of 35. Not to be confused with the more common type 2 diabetes, it can wreak havoc on the lives of those trying to manage it.

The body attacks the insulin producing cells which regulate sugar levels in the pancreas. Diabetics, as a result of the autoimmune process, can no longer produce insulin and will die without it. They must therefore inject a synthetic insulin or wear an insulin pump which releases insulin through a canula placed subcutaneously.

Sugar highs, hyperglycaemia, and sugar lows, hypoglycaemia, are the everyday occurrences that diabetics must contend with. Both can be life threatening.

Enter highly trained, medical heroes – dogs who can simply sniff out an odour undetectable by humans. The body releases chemicals during a hypoglycaemic or hyperglycaemic episode, and it is this smell that a trained medical alert dog is able to pick up.

River, a medically alert dog that has been placed with a family. PHOTO: Supplied

Unique training facility

Honey’s Garden, one of only two organisations in South Africa currently training medical alert dogs, says its training process positively motivates these dogs to alert, either by pawing or nudging, when these odours are detected.

Breytenbach says so far they have trained and placed ten dogs with families where one member is diabetic. She says they are currently training another eight dogs, including two Labradors, a poodle and a German shepherd.

The dogs are chosen based on personality and many are rescue dogs that are “given a second chance”.

But the training does not come cheap at a cost of R100,000 per dog. Breytenbach says clients are charged half of that at R50,000 and the dogs take about a year to train.

“We take saliva samples from the diabetics (when sugar levels go too high or too low), and we imprint the dogs on that scent, we teach them to give a signal when they detect that scent. We then work with them in different environments so they are able to detect the scent even when they are distracted. They must work just as well at home as at school or in a public place.”

Breytenbach says there is science behind the sniff – dogs have about 220 million scent receptors (compared to our five million), at least forty times greater than what humans have.

Micah Rabinowitz, 7, with her medical alert dog, Xara. PHOTO: Supplied

As a result, medical alert dogs have the potential to change lives

“Dogs alert the mother when the child goes low. One dog alerted six times in one week and woke the mother up during the night. We find that diabetic children and their mothers are sleeping much easier and are not so worried all the time. It gives them peace of mind and children feel watched over.”

That’s been the case for Jina Rabinowitz from Johannesburg, whose seven-year-old daughter Micah was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes just eight months ago.

In March, the family flew down to Cape Town where Breytenbach introduced them to Xara, a cross breed that had been rescued from the Anti-Animal Cruelty League.

Lucy Breytenbach with a puppy that will be trained to alert its owners to an impending medical emergency. PHOTO: Supplied

“It’s been amazing, we went down to Cape Town and did training with Lucy and the dog for about a week. She’s been amazing. She picks up most lows and then she alerts. She paws and jumps”.

Rabinowitz said her husband has been diabetic since the age of nine, but despite knowing what to expect, it was a major adjustment for the entire family when her daughter was also diagnosed. Her daughter injects insulin and is starting to get used to the never-ending management that comes with the disease. Her mother says getting the dog has put a positive spin on what can be a draining condition.

“My daughter loves having a dog, it was a big comfort for her. There was an upside and Xara sleeps with my daughter in her room every night. I also sleep better at night, it definitely gives me peace of mind.”

While All4Women endeavours to ensure health articles are based on scientific research, health articles should not be considered as a replacement for professional medical advice. Should you have concerns related to this content, it is advised that you discuss them with your personal healthcare provider.

Author: ANA Newswire


The Bark Box

« »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Free Email Updates
Get the latest content first.
We respect your privacy.