Monday, June 9, 2014

Can a Diabetic Alert Dog Help Your Child with Type 1 Diabetes?

More and more parents these days are choosing to buy diabetic alert dogs for their children with type 1 diabetes. Type 1 diabetes is a serious illness and can be life-threatening, especially in small children. Diabetic alert dogs are specially trained service dogs, meant to help people with diabetes.
The premise behind diabetic alert dogs is that dogs, with their super-sensitive noses, can detect when a person’s blood sugar drops too low or climbs too high. Service dogs can be trained to alert the person, usually by nudging them or pawing at them, and provide assistance in some way, such as by fetching a juice box from the fridge to raise low blood sugar. While on the surface this may sound like a great idea, there are some concerns about it in practice.

While there are now a number of organizations that sell diabetic alert dogs, their claims about their dogs’ abilities are as yet unproven. Simply put, scientific research has not yet proven dogs can be trained to accurately detect and alert people to changes in blood sugar levels. It should be noted that research has not disproven it, either. Owners of diabetic alert dogs generally claim their dogs are adept at alerting them. There simply hasn’t been much objective research done on the subject, though.  
It should also be noted that at least one organization that sells diabetic alert dogs has been sued, the plaintiff claiming the dog did not perform as promised. If you look at some of the claims some of these organizations make, you’ll see that it’s unlikely any dog could perform some of the feats promised. For instance, one organization has stated their dogs can detect changes in blood sugar from a mile away, which veterinary professionals and dog trainers say is simply impossible.

The truth is that, while the idea of a dog gently nudging you to let you know your blood sugar is low seems a lot more appealing than pricking your finger to test your blood sugar multiple times a day, especially for a child, a glucometer is probably more reliable.  

A glucometer is also a lot cheaper than a diabetic alert dog. Organizations that sell diabetic alert dogs often charge around $20,000, and that’s not counting the cost of feeding and caring for a service dog throughout its lifetime, which maybe be $1,200 or more each year. A glucometer, on the other hand, generally costs no more than $100 and test strips, even if you must test yourself several times a day, would cost less than $1,200 each year. Health insurance might cover part of that cost, too, but insurance almost never pays for service dogs, including diabetic alert dogs.

Of course, it’s hard to put a price on a child’s life, so many parents are willing to pay for a diabetic alert dog, no matter how high the cost, if they believe it will help their children. Relying on an expensive but unproven method of monitoring your child’s blood sugar levels could put your child at risk, though.

Another concern is that some organizations that sell diabetes alert dogs sell dogs that are very young, some still puppies. One organization sells puppies as young as eight weeks old. An eight-week-old puppy is not a trained service dog. He’s not even reliably housebroken. Families are told that, when the dog gets older, he can be trained to do things like fetch a glucometer, fetch a juice box or use a special hone to call 911. Experienced service dog trainers say there is no way to know for sure if a puppy will be able to successfully complete all the training needed to become a service dog, though. You may just end up with a $20,000 pet. In the meantime, the puppy won’t be able to go to school with your child or accompany your child to other places where pets or not allowed. Only fully trained service dogs are allowed by law to do that.

If you’re considering a diabetic alert dog for your child, do your research carefully. Make sure you’ll be getting a fully trained service dog, not a puppy that you’ll need to train as he gets older. Remember that a diabetic alert dog is not a substitute for medical care.

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