Seeking a way to monitor son’s diabetes, family goes to the dogs

Posted May 26, 2012, at 10:13 p.m.

Many parents debate over whether they should buy their child a pet.

For the Sgandurra family in Monroe, the debate was relatively short. They decided they had to get their 2-year-old son Aidan a dog. His life might depend on it.

In April, Aidan was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, which afflicts as many as 3 million Americans. It’s an autoimmune disease in which the pancreas stops producing insulin, a hormone that allows our bodies to get energy from food. Those with the condition have to carefully balance food, activity, and doses of insulin, and must also regularly check their blood sugar levels.

To help them in monitoring Aidan’s condition, the Sgandurras are hoping to purchase a diabetic alert dog — a canine specially trained to smell changes in Aidan’s blood sugar levels and alert the family if there’s a problem. The dogs aren’t cheap. The one the Sgandurras hope to get runs about $21,000. And they aren’t easy to come by. The family is on a waiting list to receive a dog from Virginia-based agency Warren Retrievers and it could take as long as eight months for the pooch to arrive. But, to the family, the wait is worth it.

“Aidan is so little, and his language is limited,” explained his mom, Denise Poisson-Sgandurra. Thus, she said, he can’t really convey, or understand, changes in his blood sugar that could be affecting his health.

But diabetic-alert dogs can sense these changes and alert the patient (or, in this case, the patient’s family) if there’s a problem. The practice of using dogs for this purpose is roughly 10 years old, said Dan Warren, owner of Warren Retrievers. His agency has been training and placing dogs since 2007, and about 300 families apply for a dog every year.

Warren said a person’s scent changes about 20 to 45 minutes in advance of a major shift in blood sugar. Dogs, with their hypersensitive senses of smell, can detect these changes and alert someone before it’s too late. “Canines can detect these chemical imbalances at the cusp,” Warren said.

Poisson-Sgandurra said Aidan’s diagnosis was somewhat shocking, as no one else in the family has the condition (though Aidan’s twin brother, Lukas, hasn’t yet been tested for it). Since his diagnosis, the adults in Aidan’s life have had to monitor him constantly — even in the middle of the night. “We have to take turns waking up to check on him,” Poisson-Sgandurra said.

So far, their hyper-vigilant approach has worked, but it’s exhausting and still leaves the family concerned they might miss something. Shortly after Aidan was diagnosed, his parents heard about the diabetic alert dogs, and decided to look into the idea.

Once a family gets a dog, the agency spends months training the animal to identify changes and alert the family. The lengthy training process is the main reason the cost is so high, Warren said. However, he said he’s aware most families can’t afford such a high price tag, so he’s developed an alternate payment method. Families have to contribute a down payment of $1,000, which the Sgandurras have already paid. Then they have a commitment to do $7,000 worth of fundraising for Warren Retrievers each year over the course of about three years.

The Sgandurras have already scheduled a fundraiser for noon on June 9 at the Masonic Temple, 131 Beach Road, Fairfield. The event, which has a $5 entry fee, will feature various vendors, face painting, and raffles. Poisson-Sgandurra said the family is eagerly awaiting the day they’ll get their dog. In fact, Aidan’s demeanor in the wake of his diagnosis has even inspired a possible name for the animal. “This dog is going to have to be named ‘Trooper,’ because Aidan’s been such a trooper through all this,” she said.

The concept of the diabetic- alert dog is relatively new and some diabetes experts in the region said they had yet to meet a family that uses one. That includes Mary Jo Farrelly, a certified diabetes educator at Bridgeport Hospital’s Diabetes Education Center. She said her knowledge on the subject is limited, but the concept is intriguing. “It seems like the dogs could certainly serve a purpose,” Farrelly said. “I have some elderly patients that live alone and they worry about their (blood sugar hitting a low) in the middle of the night.”

However, Farrelly cautions that as soon as someone is diagnosed with diabetes, their priority should be educating themselves about managing the condition. The dogs are a great idea, she said “but a dog can’t replace knowledge.”

The Sgandurras are still seeking vendors and raffle items for their fundraiser. If you can help, call Denise Poisson-Sgandurra at 203-556-5743.

acuda@ctpost.com; 203-330-6290; twitter.com/AmandaCuda;

(c)2012 the Connecticut Post (Bridgeport, Conn.)

Distributed by MCT Information Services

 

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