Chagas Disease (Kissing Bug Disease)

Due to recent news coverage, we have been receiving a few questions regarding Chagas (pronounced “Sha-gus”) Disease. The Texas Veterinary Medicine Diagnostic Laboratory has recently warned that a number of “kissing bugs” from Center Point have tested positive for the parasite that transmits Chagas Disease. Chagas Disease can affect both humans and animals. Dogs are the main concern in domestic animals. Chagas Disease is considered to be a tropical disease, mainly seen in Latin America. It is a fairly rare disease in the United States, but Texas is one state where we do sometimes see it. (Lucky us!)

What causes Chagas Disease?
Chagas Disease, also called “trypanosomiasis”, is caused by the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi. Trypanosoma cruzi is a blood parasite that lives in the bloodstream, inside white blood cells, and in cells of the muscle. It is spread by the Reduvid (subfamily Triatoma) bug.

What symptoms will you see with Chagas Disease?
Chagas Disease is not a very nice disease! It mainly causes severe heart failure or arrhythmias, as the parasite likes to attach to heart muscle. Dogs less than a year old usually develop more serious, sudden cases of heart failure. Oftentimes, the first sign of a problem will be sudden collapse and death! The dogs that do not die suddenly, will develop signs attributed to heart disease, such as a swollen abdomen. Occasionally, they can also develop neurologic signs, as well as anorexia or diarrhea.

How do dogs get Chagas Disease?
The parasite causing Chagas Disease is spread by the Reduvid (subfamily Triatoma) insect. This insect is commonly called the “kissing bug”. The insect spreads the parasite by biting the animal (or human) and then defecating in the bite site! (Yuck!) Interestingly, the “kissing bug” got its name by biting humans around the mouth while they sleep, as they are attracted to carbon dioxide. Dogs can also get Chagas Disease by swallowing an infected “kissing bug”.

Is there a treatment for Chagas Disease?
There are two antiparasitic drugs available to help combat Chagas Disease. These drugs work best in the early phases of the disease, and they have side effects. If the dog lives through the initial infection, it will have to be put on heart medications due to residual heart complications. It is much better to try to prevent the infection from occurring, as there is really no good treatment!

What can I do to try to prevent my dog from getting Chagas Disease?
The only thing you can do to try to prevent Chagas Disease is to decrease your dog’s exposure to the “kissing bug”. “Kissing bugs” feed at night, so letting your dog sleep indoors will decrease its exposure to them. If your dog is housed outdoors, upgrading their housing can help limit infection. The “kissing bug” lives in hay, woodpiles, and chicken coops. Limiting these types of environments on your property will help decrease your animal’s chance of exposure. Insecticides can be sprayed monthly near kennels known to have “kissing bugs” on the property.

Can cats get Chagas Disease?
While cats are susceptible to the South American form of the Trypanosoma cruzi parasite, there is little information on the disease in cats. So far, no cases of feline Chagas disease in the United States have been reported. It is much more of a concern in dogs.

While Chagas Disease is scary, it is still extremely rare. Because of “kissing bugs” recently testing positive in our area, we do recommend upgrading your dogs’ housing if they are mainly outdoors. The CDC and WHO have wonderful information on Chagas Disease on their websites, if you would like to learn more.

For further information, especially concerning the human form of the disease, here are links to the CDC & World Health Organization:

Ryan Roberts, DVM
Greene, Craig E. Infectious Diseases of the Dog and Cat, Ed 3. Chapter 72: Trypanosomiasis. Barr, Stephen “American Trypanosomiasis”. Pp 676-681, 2006.