The Russell Street woman, who is a Type 2 diabetic, is convinced her 85-pound pit bull, Messiah, may have helped save her life recently when her blood sugar level plummeted to dangerously low levels.
“This dog has good sense,” the 72-year-old Hathaway said.
Near dinner time Oct. 6, Hathaway was in her bedroom with the door slightly ajar.
Her housemate, Darrin Trombley, was asleep in his room across the hall when he heard a “low sobbing” and thought Hathaway was crying. He went into her room and found her incoherent, lying on the bed with her feet on the floor. Messiah was whining and lapping furiously at Hathaway’s face, which Trombley said was odd because Hathaway is allergic to the dog’s saliva.
Trombley grabbed a camera to take a photo and realized Messiah’s tail wasn’t wagging. He then noticed the dog was smothering Hathaway with his licking.
Trombley quickly pulled Messiah off and put him in his bedroom. He called Fort Edward Emergency Squad and went back to check on Hathaway. He then phoned her daughter, who is a nurse.
Fort Edward’s rescue team was out on a call, so Trombley had to wait for Moreau Emergency Squad to come to the house from Glens Falls Hospital.
In the meantime, he grabbed orange juice from the refrigerator and tried rubbing it on Hathaway’s lips and into her mouth to give her quick energy.
Colleen Cronkhite-Taft, Hathaway’s daughter, showed up moments later and checked her mother’s glucose, which registered 32. Her blood sugar is usually between 130 and 150.
Cronkhite-Taft tried giving her mother granulated sugar, but her condition still didn’t improve. The emergency squad showed up soon after and found Hathaway’s glucose level dropped to 19.
“She had already started to seize and was making, like, burbling noises,” Trombley said.
The EMTs administered two bags of glucose intravenously and, within half an hour, Hathaway regained consciousness.
Hathaway said she doesn’t remember anything of the episode except seeing her daughter and the medics in her house. Trombley told her she had passed out and that it was Messiah who alerted him she was in trouble.
“I was stunned,” Hathaway said.
It seems there are many anecdotes about dogs who can supposedly sense when their owners are having a medical emergency.
Dr. David Judge, a veterinarian at Adirondack Animal Hospital, said he hasn’t heard from any dog owners in his practice that their pets reacted to diabetic episodes, but a few have told him they respond to other conditions, like epileptic seizures.
Judge said it has always been assumed dogs have a superior sense of smell and research is being done to determine if dogs can sniff out disease. Unfortunately, conflicting results and few “perfect” experiments have proved it conclusively.
Judge cited one experiment published in care.diabetesjournal.org that sought to determine if trained dogs could detect hypoglycemia by scent alone in Type 1 diabetic patients. Skin swabs from people with hypoglycemia, or low blood sugar, were presented to the canines to see how they would behave.
The results showed the dogs couldn’t reliably identify the hypoglycemic swabs.
Another experiment conducted in the United Kingdom seems to indicate otherwise.
A questionnaire was completed by 212 dog owners with Type 1 diabetes to collect information on their hypoglycemic episodes and 138 believed their untrained dogs responded to at least one of their events.
More than 65 percent said their dogs reacted to at least one episode and almost 32 percent responded to more than 11 episodes. “The bottom line is no one knows for sure (if dogs can reliably sniff out a diabetic episode) and I am certainly not opposed to the idea that it could be possible,” Judge said. “It’s just hard to reproduce experimentally.”
Dr. John O’Connor, a veterinarian at Glens Falls Animal Hospital, said he finds it “interesting” when he hears stories of dogs that, just through their sense of smell, can detect disease or predict when people are going to have some sort of health episode. Dogs are very perceptive, he believes, but it’s because the owners give outward, visible signs.
“We’ve all watched ‘Lassie’ where Timmy fell in the well, came running into the house, alerted the parents to ‘Follow me!’ Dogs pick up on your emotions if you’re sad, if you’re angry, if you’re happy,” O’Connor said. “I think if a person is stumbling and confused or whatever, the dog would be able to pick up on that.”
Dr. Jonathan Beach, of Plattsburgh, is a physician who specializes in diabetes at Beach Medical Center. He has also lived with Type 1 diabetes for 35 years and is convinced certain dogs can sniff out fluctuations in blood sugar.
Three years ago, he learned of Service Dogs by Warren Retrievers, a nonprofit organization that specializes in training animals for people with invisible disabilities such as diabetes. He now owns Banting, who came from the Madison, Virginia, organization.
(An NBC affiliate ran an online story about three families in Texas who claim they were duped by Warren Retrievers because the dogs they purchased to sniff out Type 1 diabetes were nothing more than “expensive house pets.”)
Beach takes Banting everywhere with him. The canine wears a jacket designating him as a service animal and is protected by the Americans for Disabilities Law. They went through extensive training together and for the first two weeks, Beach fed every meal to Banting by hand. As their bond deepened, Beach said the dog grew to be concerned for his well-being.
Beach said Banting has never faltered in detecting a diabetic event, whether his blood sugar was too high or too low. The dog sometimes alerts him two or three times a day if there is a change in blood sugar levels. Other times, Beach notices it first. He said Banting reacts more aggressively if there is a rapid change in his sugar.
On a recent morning, Beach was reviewing charts in his office when Banting came up to him acting “very agitated.” The dog nudged him a few times, so Beach tested his glucose level. He found his blood sugar was climbing, so he corrected it.
“Banting’s now lying comfortably under the desk,” he said.
Hathaway doesn’t know much about Messiah’s background, or whether he was ever trained to sniff out diabetes. He was two days from being euthanized at Saratoga County Animal Shelter when she rescued him a year and a half ago. The two have grown close over their time together, she said.
After the episode in October, Trombley urged Hathaway to start keeping a daily journal of what she eats so she can better monitor her sugar. Trombley has learned how to do glucose testing and he keeps glucose frosting tubes in the cabinet.
Both of them feel a lot better that Messiah is watching over Hathaway.
“It’s an extreme reassurance when I leave for work for the day. I know he’s got things covered,” Trombley said.