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Dogs Can Help Children with Celiac Disease

photo of a cute girl hugging a golden retriever with love, her eyes closed, smiling. | Celiac DiseaseWhen a doctor identifies celiac disease in a child, the process of health recovery begins. Diagnosis is a “light bulb moment.” Now, there’s an explanation for a child’s chronic abdominal pain, gas, diarrhea, or constipation. Diagnosis also reveals the reason for the vomiting, weight loss, and delayed growth that some children exhibit.

Gluten Allergy

All these symptoms reflect an abnormal immune response to gluten. This is a mixture of elastic proteins, found in wheat, rye, and barley. Gluten is the agent that gives bread dough its stretchy texture. When gluten is mixed with water and kneaded, its proteins stick together. In fact, the English word “gluten” derives from the Latin term for glue. Celiac disease is a serious allergic reaction to gluten.

Causes

Celiac disease tends to be hereditary, passed through family generations via genes. However, a parent can unknowingly carry the trait without becoming ill.

In children, celiac disease can be activated by viral infection, bacterial gastroenteritis, physical injury, or severe emotional stress. These triggers account for the age variations in affected children. Some kids develop the disease as tykes while others don’t get sick until their teens.

Symptoms

For infants and toddlers, evidence of celiac disease can be irritability, bloat, and vomiting. Older kids and teens may display signs that seem unrelated to the digestive system. These include achy joints, chronic fatigue, rash, mouth sores, recurring headaches, and delayed puberty.

Over time, malnutrition can lead to hair loss, nosebleeds, easy bruising, and changes in tooth enamel and color. Understandably, teens are often subject to depression and panic attacks.

Diagnosis

When a GI North doctor suspects celiac disease, he first conducts a screening blood test, before gluten is omitted from the diet. The disorder is implicated by high levels of certain antibodies in a blood sample. Antibodies are blood proteins that attack alien substances in the body, typically viruses and bacteria. In the case of celiac, the immune system views gluten as an enemy.

Then, antibodies destroy villi, finger-like projections lining the small intestine. Injured villi can’t absorb nutrients from food, leading to malnutrition.

If blood testing implies celiac disease, our doctor performs endoscopic biopsy. This procedure involves removing a tissue sample from a child’s small intestine, to examine the villi. Seeing flattened villi confirms celiac disease.

Treatment

Fortunately, regardless of a child’s age, symptoms typically resolve with strict adherence to a gluten-free diet. Making dietary changes is crucial for kids to maintain a healthy weight, height, and bone strength.

However, avoiding gluten sources isn’t easy, and reading labels is vital. You can identify wheat, barley, and rye on packaging. However, traces of gluten can lurk in processed foods, without being stated on labels. Likewise, gluten is an unclaimed ingredient in some soaps, toothpastes, nutritional supplements, and medicines.

Symptoms can flare in a child with minimal exposure to gluten. Tiny toaster crumbs can cause intestinal damage. Cross-contamination can also occur from ingesting something that has touched food containing gluten.

Parents can buy home testing kits, but they can only identify gluten in a quantity of 10 parts per million (ppm) or more. Some children are sensitive to gluten in amounts less than 10 ppm.

Celiac Service Dogs

However, dogs have an advantage over humans by being able to smell gluten. Training a dog in gluten detection involves teaching it to recognize and flag the scent with a gesture, such as a raised paw. Trainers reward a dog for correct responses with treats. A dog can become so adept at identifying gluten that it can smell it through packaging.

On average, training takes up to three months. Like a service dog for the blind, a gluten-detecting dog can travel with a child in public places, such as school, stores, and restaurants. Here’s a video clip describing the training process.

Training Standards

One way to locate a qualified scent trainer is by contacting O.D.O.R. Service Dogs Inc. This organization consists of professional service dog trainers and researchers, dedicated to the highest standards of allergen detection.

To ensure canine reliability, O.D.O.R. has devised standardized tests for trainer use. O.D.O.R. also provides ongoing trainer education. For additional information, contact the agency at its website or e-mail O.D.O.R. here.

Qualified Dogs

Nosey Service Dogs is a non-profit organization that trains gluten-detecting dogs and makes them available. For information, visit the Nosey DDP website.

Owner Training

Alternatively, you can hire a professional trainer to teach a dog you’ve selected for gluten detection. To ensure that a trainer is qualified, they should meet the following criteria:

  • fully assess whether a dog is teachable
  • involve the owner in the training process
  • offer at least three months of training
  • provide follow-up for ongoing detection success


Willow Service Dogs is an organization that works with dog owners, training their pets in gluten detection. The agency’s founder is keenly aware of the challenges of maintaining a gluten-free diet, having celiac disease herself. Dawn Scheu and her staff teach dogs to meet the gluten detection standards established by O.D.O.R.

One test canines must pass is consistently flagging gluten in food, medicines, and hygiene items. Other mandated tests are room searches, public product checks, supermarket searches, assessing restaurant meals, and checking items in a gluten-free environment. Here’s further information on Willow Service Dogs.

About GI North

Two board-certified gastroenterologists lead our practice, Dr. Cofrancesco and Dr. Quijano. With 20+ years of experience, the doctors diagnose and treat a wide range of digestive conditions. We provide accurate testing with advanced technology, including upper endoscopy and colonoscopy. Our doctors are affiliated with Northside Hospital-Forsyth. Additionally, Dr. Quijano is fluent in Spanish, for the care of Hispanic patients.

At GI North, we’re committed to providing the highest quality of gastrointestinal care. This includes timely appointments and thorough visits, where you’ll have ample time to ask questions and voice your concerns. We strive to ensure your comfort and confidence in our doctors’ expertise.

Located in Cumming, Georgia, we welcome our neighbors from surrounding towns, including Alpharetta, Buford, Canton, Dawsonville, Duluth, Gainesville, Roswell, and Suwanee. Here you can read further about our gastroenterology practice. Here’s information on how our doctors evaluate and treat celiac disease.

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