Healthy Body

A nose for danger

Written by James Combs

A trained dog could help a Tavares woman with diabetes.


Dog owners teach their furry friends to heel. Katie Cowham is hoping to purchase a diabetic alert dog that teaches her to heal.

A 21-year-old resident of Tavares, Katie has battled Type 1 diabetes since being diagnosed at age 3. Every night for the past 18 years, her parents, Glenn and Joy Cowham, quietly entered her room, pricked her fingertip with a small needle, and put a drop of blood on a glucose meter to make sure she has not slipped into a diabetic coma.

“We set our alarm and do this every two hours throughout the night,” Joy says. “Diabetes does not go away when you sleep. There have been many cases of Type 1 diabetics falling into a coma during sleep and never waking up.”

Katie is not willing to take that chance now that she wants to move away from home for the first time. Without her parents providing repeated care throughout the night, a diabetic alert dog could be a potential lifesaver. The animal could warn Katie whenever her blood sugar falls or spikes to dangerous levels.

One obstacle remains. The canine comes with a hefty price tag of $13,500, which does not include the additional cost of training. As of late June, Katie, a phlebotomist at a private medical practice in The Villages, had raised $7,415 using a GoFundMe account.

She feels confident she’ll raise the rest of the money. In fact, she already has narrowed down a list to two potential names for a male dog: Indy or Maverick.

“I have always loved dogs,” Katie says. “Even if you’re not feeling well, you can’t look at a dog and not be happy.”

Katie hopes to purchase a Labrador retriever from Lily Grace Service Dogs, an Idaho-based company that trains dogs to assist patients with diabetes, autism, post-traumatic stress disorder, and limited mobility. The owner, Lily Grace, has trained service dogs for 16 years.

To train diabetic alert dogs, she collects three samples of a patient’s saliva—one sample when blood sugar is low, one sample when blood sugar is normal, and one sample when blood sugar is high. Then, when the puppies are 8 weeks old, she begins scent training so they can effectively use their sharp snouts to detect acetone scents as a sign of low blood sugar and sweet, fruity smells as an indication of high blood sugar.

“I put the saliva in tins and put the tins on different parts of my body,” Lily says. “Whenever the puppy smells a tin with the saliva representing low or high blood sugar, it earns the puppy a click and a treat. If the puppy smells the tin with saliva of normal blood sugar, I don’t do anything.”

Once the dogs complete scent training, they learn how to alert their human partner. “I teach my dogs to paw diabetic patients because with this disease people can get loopy or pass out,” Lily says. “They will know when the dog makes physical contact they need to check their blood-sugar level.”

After six to eight months of undergoing an extensive training and obedience program, dogs are delivered to owners. For the Cowhams, Katie’s hopeful companion cannot arrive soon enough. In May, Katie was hospitalized for 10 days after her body went into diabetic ketoacidosis, a “serious complication of diabetes that occurs when your body produces high levels of blood acids called ketones,” according to the Mayo Clinic.

“She has been in and out of the hospital her entire life, but this was her longest hospital stay,” Glenn says. “Her hormone levels were imbalanced, she had fluid around her heart and lungs, and her body was bloated. At one point, doctors thought she had gone into congestive heart and kidney failure.” Katie left the hospital with an unfortunate diagnosis of gastroparesis, a disease where stomach muscles stop working, resulting in poor emptying of food into the intestine. The condition adds another layer of difficulty to Katie’s ongoing medical battle.

“Because of the gastroparesis, Katie can only eat a few bites of food before she feels extremely full,” Joy says. “If she doesn’t eat enough, then the insulin she administers after her meal drives her blood-sugar level way too low.”

An alert dog would be another valuable tool in helping Katie manage the never-ending complications of diabetes.

“The dog will be attached to me at the hip,” Katie says. “It will sleep with me, go to restaurants with me, and go to work with me. That will give my parents peace of mind.”

And give Katie her independence.


To help the cause: Anyone who would like to donate to Katie’s GoFundMe account can visit gofundme.com/katiesalertdog.

About the author

James Combs

Akers Media Group's James Combs has been a staff writer for several local publications since August 2000. He has had the privilege of interviewing some of Lake County’s many fascinating residents—from innovative business owners to heroic war veterans—and bringing their stories to life. A resident of Lake County since 1986, James recently embarked on a journey to lead a healthier lifestyle. He has lost 60 pounds and walks nearly five miles a day. In his spare time, he enjoys target shooting, skeet shooting and watching his beloved Kentucky Wildcats!

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