Aug. 4, 2010 -- Most pet owners would be irate if their dog bit off one of their toes, but Jerry Douthett, of Rockford, Mich., is nothing but grateful: this canine feat may have saved his life.
Douthett was alerted to the seriousness of a bone infection in his foot, resulting from previously undiagnosed Type II diabetes, when his terrier Kiko bit off his big toe while he was passed out drunk, according to The Grand Rapids Press.
"Jerry had had all these Margaritas, so I just let him sleep," his wife, Rosee, a registered nurse told the Michigan paper. "But then I heard these screams coming from the bedroom, and he was yelling, 'My toe's gone, my toe's gone!'"
He suspected for months something was wrong with his foot, but the 48-year-old musician had only recently scheduled an appointment to see a doctor.
Douthett was rushed to the hospital by Rosie where doctors amputated the rest of his toe and diagnosed him with Type II diabetes.
Though Kiko is being hailed as a hero, he is also being watched by authorizes to ensure that he doesn't have rabies.
The Dog That Smelled Diabetes
But a dog wouldn't need to rabid to act in the way Kiko did, according to Brian Adams, spokesperson for the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell.
When flesh begins to die, as would have happened with Douthett's infection in his toe, it lets off a particular odor that any dog can be attracted to.
"Dogs are known to be attracted to licking wounds. It wouldn't be a bridge too far to suppose that the toe would have given off an odor that attracted the dog, and that may have progressed to biting or gnawing on the toe," he says.
"If the owner didn't wake up, there'd be no deterrent to stop."
The fact that Kiko's owner most likely had elevated blood sugar due to his diabetes would have made the appeal all the stronger, says Dr. Marty Becker, veterinarian at the North Idaho Animal Hospital and author of "The Healing Power of Pets."
"Dogs like to lick open wounds because it has blood sugar in it. Here's a case where the high blood sugar could have been a sweet, ambrosial smell to the dog," Becker says.
"It's not bad for the dog. People get freaked out because dogs are very much drawn to the smell of decaying flesh, but dogs are scavengers by nature," he adds.
Diabetes Warning Signs to Not Miss
Though it took Douthett a decaying toe and a trip to the emergency room to find out he had Type II diabetes, there are usually other warning signs that can clue a patient in to their illness.
"Many people do find out that they have Type II diabetes for the first time because they have a catastrophe that lands them in the hospital," says Dr. Gerald Bernstein, co-director of the Diabetes Management Program at Friedman's Diabetes Institute in New York.
By being attuned to the warning signs of diabetes or pre-diabetic conditions such as glucose intolerance, however, patients can help identify their condition and start treatment earlier -- a key step in avoiding life threatening, or appendage-threatening consequences, he says.
"If a patient has high enough blood sugar, they are going to experience the classic symptoms of fatigue, dry mouth, and constant thirst," Bernstein says, noting that in younger patients, it can be easier to tolerate and make excuses for these symptoms and therefore overlook the underlying disease.
When glucose levels are elevated for long periods of time, the earliest tissues to be affected are the nerves, especially those that are farthest from the trunk of the body, the feet and toes. Patients may have numbness, and lack of pain sensation that they may not notice.
With good medical care, Bernstein says that amputations due to diabetes are much less frequent than in the past, but when people don't pay attention to changes in the look or the sensation in their feet, after a point, the appendages cannot be saved.
In addition to symptom awareness, regular screening of blood glucose levels is also key, he adds.
Given the fact that over 40 percent of the U.S. population over 20 has Type 2 diabetes or a pre-diabetic condition, Bernstein says, "people would do well to have their blood sugar screened on a regular basis."