As far back as the 16th Century, dogs were used as guides for blind people. Since then, they’ve come to play a much wider role in healthcare.

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Today, guide dogs have been joined by medical detection dogs that have been trained to sniff out cancer, along with various other medical conditions including type 1 diabetes, severe nut allergies and Addison’s disease (a rare disorder of the adrenal glands), and soon possibly even Parkinson’s disease and malaria as well.

Do guide dogs know that their master is blind? © Getty Images

Previous studies have found that medical detection dogs show promise in sniffing out disease but more rigorous proof has yet to be produced. Now, after the recent completion of the first large-scale study into the abilities of medical detection dogs, that’s now changed – at least as far as dogs trained to sniff out type 1 diabetes are concerned.

The study, carried out by the University of Bristol Veterinary School, took place over a period of six to 12 weeks and tracked the performance of 27 glycaemia alert dogs, which had been trained to detect when their owner’s blood sugar level is too high (hyperglycaemia) or too low (hypoglycaemia).

During that time the dogs’ owners were asked to record every hypoglycaemic or hyperglycaemic episode they experienced. After analysing the results, the researchers found that the dogs had alerted their owners to 83 per cent of hypoglycaemic episodes, and 67 per cent of hyperglycaemic episodes.

“We already know that a patient’s quality of life is vastly improved by having a medical detection dog,” said Dr Nicola Rooney, who led the research. “But to date, evidence has come from small-scale studies. Our study provides the first large-scale evaluation of using medical detection dogs to detect hypoglycaemia.”

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Authors

Jason Goodyer
Jason GoodyerCommissioning editor, BBC Science Focus

Jason is the commissioning editor for BBC Science Focus. He holds an MSc in physics and was named Section Editor of the Year by the British Society of Magazine Editors in 2019. He has been reporting on science and technology for more than a decade. During this time, he's walked the tunnels of the Large Hadron Collider, watched Stephen Hawking deliver his Reith Lecture on Black Holes and reported on everything from simulation universes to dancing cockatoos. He looks after the magazine’s and website’s news sections and makes regular appearances on the Instant Genius Podcast.

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