Pet Talk: Chagas Disease in Dogs

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Many of our furry four-legged friends love to bask in the sun or wrestle with other dogs in the soft green grass. As owners, we know how essential outdoor exercise is for our dogs, especially certain breeds. It would be comforting to believe our pets are completely safe while enjoying the outdoors, but this is rarely the case.

Chagas, a potentially fatal disease transmitted to animals through insects, is a danger for both inside and outside dogs. The disease is caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which is spread to dogs through insects in the Reduviidae family, also commonly known as cone-nose or kissing bugs. Dr. Ashley Saunders, associate professor of cardiology at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, explains how insects are effective at spreading the disease.

“The T. cruzi organism is transmitted to the host from a bite from an infected bug or ingestion of an infected bug,” Saunders said. She also added that dogs can contract the disease without coming into contact with an insect. “Transplacental transmission has also been reported as a method of transmission.” This means the disease can be spread from a mother to her offspring.

Once the dog has been exposed to the T. cruzi organism, the parasite spreads through the body by becoming intracellular and invading the blood stream of the dog. The brain and heart of the dog are the organs that are most vulnerable to the disease.

Chagas symptoms can be categorized as acute or chronic, while some dogs can even be asymptomatic of the disease. In this case the protozoan parasite can have months or years to cause inflammation and damage to the heart. If clinical signs develop the disease can become even more fatal, causing sudden death or heart failure. Acute symptoms include diarrhea, lethargy, seizures, swollen lymph nodes, and increased heart rate, while chronic symptoms include weakness, fainting, increased heart rate, and fatigue. Dogs that experience acute symptoms are typically younger than two years old.

Insect control is a major key in managing the disease since no vaccine currently exists. To protect your resting pup at night, reduce lighting to decrease the amount of bugs that may come into contact with your pet. Kennels with protective screens can also be effective in preventing the dangerous bite of a kissing bug. Wood piles and other brushy areas can serve as a breeding ground for infected insects, so try to keep your pet’s backyard area clean and free of potential dangers.

Saunders explains that Chagas is commonly found in Latin America and in southern states in the United States, including Texas. She urges owners to contact a veterinarian if they think their dog is experiencing symptoms of Chagas. If a dog becomes infected with Chagas, it is important to test the other dogs in the household or litter as well. Females who are infected should not be used for breeding as they can transmit the disease to the litter via the placenta.

Whether your dog prefers the outdoors or only embraces the wilderness for potty breaks, your pet is at risk for Chagas. With no vaccine or treatment available, awareness and prevention is critical in protecting your pet from Chagas disease.

To find more information on this subject and identification pictures of kissing bugs, click here.

Pet Talk is a service of the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, Texas A&M University.

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