AYLESBURY, England (Reuters) - Dogs are being trained in Britain as potential life-savers to warn diabetic owners when their blood sugar levels fall to dangerously low levels.
Man's best friend already has been shown capable of sniffing out certain cancer cells, and dogs have long been put to work in the hunt for illegal drugs and explosives.
Their new front-line role in diabetes care follows recent evidence suggesting a dog's hyper-sensitive nose can detect tiny changes that occur when a person is about to have a hypoglycemic attack.
A survey last December by researchers at Queen's University Belfast found 65 percent of 212 people with insulin-dependent diabetes reported that when they had a hypoglycemic episode their pets had reacted by whining, barking, licking or some other display.
At the Cancer and Bio-Detection Dogs research center in Aylesbury, southern England, animal trainers are putting that finding into practice and honing dogs' innate skills.
The charity has 17 rescue dogs at various stages of training that will be paired up with diabetic owners, many of them children.
"Dogs have been trained to detect certain odors down to parts per trillion, so we are talking tiny, tiny amounts. Their world is really very different to ours," Chief Executive Claire Guest told Reuters TV.
The center was started five years ago by orthopedic surgeon Dr John Hunt, who wanted to investigate curious anecdotes about dogs pestering their owners repeatedly on parts of their body that were later found to be cancerous.
At around the same time, the first hard evidence was being gathered by researchers down the road at Amersham Hospital that dogs could identify bladder cancer from chemicals in urine.
The move into diabetes followed the case of Paul Jackson, who told Guest and her team about his dog Tinker who warns him when his sugar levels get too low and he is in danger of collapsing.
"It's generally licking my face, panting beside me. It depends how far I have gone before he realizes," Jackson said.
Tinker has now been trained by the Aylesbury center and is a fully qualified Diabetic Hypo-Alert dog, complete with red jacket to announce himself as a working assistance animal.
The center is continuing work to perfect dogs' ability in spotting signs of cancer. But while dog-lover Guest says it would be nice to have a dog in every doctor's office to screen for disease, ultimately that is not practical.
Instead, she hopes the research will lead to the invention of an electronic nose that will mimic a dog's.
"At the moment electronic noses are not as advanced as the dogs', they are about 15 years behind. But the work that we are doing and what we are finding out will help scientists advance quickly so that they can use electronic noses to do the same thing," she said.
Additional reporting and writing by Ben Hirschler; editing by Michael Roddy