How my dog is helping my diabetes mindset

16 Jan 2023
Navin Khosla medical writer
Navin Khosla
Medical Writer
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Since being diagnosed with type 1 diabetes and subsequent health conditions, my mental health has been in huge decline. All I could think about was diabetes, and how diabetes and my mental health were affecting every aspect of my life. It was consuming and controlling.

I wanted to have something to put my heart and soul into because I wasn’t ready for any form of acceptance of my own situation. I have hobbies that I’m passionate about, but I needed a bigger focus and purpose. So in November last year, we started looking for a dog.

Eventually, in March this year, we found him! A litter of 5 pointer-mix puppies from Cyprus was found in a bin bag at 3 weeks old and were awaiting their 16-week mark before being able to fly. After a virtual tour of our garden with the adoption coordinator, a panicked hour of filling out an adoption form at record speed, we were selected. A few days later we had the choice of two male puppies. My partner could not decide and told me to make the decision; it was purely based on how the puppies looked as we had no real information on their temperament. I chose the smaller one, and we called him Indy; named after the iconic Indiana Jones.

The power of dogs when it comes to mental health benefits

Dogs are known for improving and helping people’s mental health and play vital roles for human beings living with disabilities. *According to HABRI (The Human Animal Bond Research Institute), 74% of pet owners say that owning a pet has improved their mental health. Studies show that human-animal interaction increases oxytocin levels in the brain, resulting in a sense of calm, comfort and focus. Popular dog breeds used in studies with diabetic alert dogs are Labrador retrievers golden retrievers, Labrador retriever and golden retriever cross, poodles, and Yorkshire terriers. My local hospital even has a therapy dog, a huge, gentle golden retriever called Spartacus. They unknowingly change the lives of countless people across the world, and I am lucky enough to be one of them.

Experiencing DKA

On April 22nd 2021, I picked up Indy from a van in a service station, 45 minutes away from home. It was the most surreal experience of my life. Little did I know, I was going into DKA (diabetic ketoacidosis). The following morning I was rushed to the hospital.

The whole time, all I could think of was how I was missing crucial bonding time with this brand-new puppy I’d brought home less than 12 hours before. I was so annoyed and frustrated by diabetes; we had been waiting so long for this, and now DKA? It came completely out of nowhere on what should have been, one of the best days ever. It caused a big spiral in my mental state, worrying about the future and how could I enjoy anything due to diabetes just being there all the time. Sometimes it is so overwhelming.

However, when I got home, Indy immediately ran over to me and would not leave my side. Watching how dogs greet people in videos is nice, but you really aren’t prepared for how wonderful it feels when it happens to you, and when it is your own dog. Initially, he was quite nervous; he was not too keen on being approached, unless he made the first move, and was just generally shy. But over the next few days, I noticed something quite incredible.

The accidental diabetes service dog?

Following DKA, my insulin doses were increased by my healthcare team to reduce the risk of going back into DKA, in case it was caused by incorrect ratios. However, I started having more hypos (hypoglycemia), and Indy started becoming my shadow. If my blood glucose levels was either trending down or low, he would nudge his nose on the front of my legs and put a paw on my foot while laying down. If I sat down, he would curl up in my lap. Nothing would make him move from my side, which for a 4-month-old puppy when there are far more exciting things to be doing than sitting next to a sweaty, shaky person on a couch or the floor, was pretty amazing to me.

I then started to notice that if my blood sugar levels were running higher or rising, he would nudge his nose on the backs of my legs, and lick my leg, then stay close by, but not quite as close as when hypo, more just keeping an eye.

I’m sure a lot of people living with diabetes will agree that experiencing hypos (low blood sugar) and hypers (high blood sugar) is stressful and can induce anxiety. For me, hypos had become a great fear. I was losing my hypo awareness and due to another condition, my hypos had become quite intense. But having Indy by my side has honestly changed so much for me. It has improved my well-being and quality of life. I no longer live in as much dread about dropping low, because I know that whatever happens, he knows that something is going on, even if I’m aware or not. He is right there, and he will not leave me.

Dealing with diabetes together

Living with diabetes and having this huge life-changing diagnosis in my adult life has not been easy. Accepting all of it has really affected me mentally, and it’s a battle I’m dealing with every day. I’ve often felt so overwhelmed by it all, that I end up not taking care of myself because I’d rather ignore it. However, taking care of another being that I love has honestly changed my mindset in ways I could previously never imagine. Now I find myself fighting back against the thoughts of not looking after myself properly because Indy is counting on me. If I’m not ok, Indy is not ok, and that cannot happen. Indy is like a family member to me.

New beginnings for my mental health and diabetes

In just 4 months of being here, my dog has turned my world upside down in so many ways, but the main one is that I’m not as angry anymore. The resentment I was feeling inside, is slowly disappearing. It rears its head every now and then, but I am spending more of my days happy than I am sad. His silly little quirks and the way he just is brings me joy like no other. I feel like he has lifted some of the huge weight from my shoulders, simply from existing.

I had no idea that when I chose him from a photo, he would have the impact that he has had, or that he would be able to detect fluctuations in my blood sugars so early on. They say that you end up with the dog that you need, not the one you necessarily want. Indy has come into our lives. He is absolutely the dog we need. I’m blown away every day by it.

Diabetes and everything associated with diabetes such as glucose monitoring, carb intake and calories, weight loss and weight gain, blood pressure and cholesterol levels are not allowed to consume my brain anymore. Indy has helped me cope with it and it is so refreshing.

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