An insect sits on a leaf

As responsible dog owners, we do everything we can to protect the health and wellbeing of our canine companions. Keeping our pets safe means understanding the threats to their longevity, whether it’s avoiding heat stroke, keeping up with their dental care, or making sure they take their medications each day.

Chagas disease, a major threat to the health of Texas dogs, is still relatively unknown among dog owners. We hope to change that by educating our readers about Chagas disease in dogs – what it looks like, and how to protect your pets.

Chagas Disease

Chagas disease is caused by a single-celled protozoan parasite named Trypanosoma cruzi. The organism lives inside an insect called a kissing bug, named for its propensity to bite people on the lips and near the mouth. 

Chagas disease is common in Central and South America and parts of Mexico and has recently made its way to Texas and other southern states.

How Chagas is Spread

Chagas is spread via the blood – the insect feeds by sucking blood, and will often defecate near the wound. The protozoa live in the feces and have adapted to enter the bloodstream of an unsuspecting human or dog via the wound. 

Dogs can also become infected by eating a kissing bug, and puppies can be infected via the mother dog.

Chagas Disease in Dogs

Chagas disease has 3 distinct stages:

  1. Acute phase: Clinical signs include pale gums, enlargement of the lymph nodes and spleen, loss of appetite, and diarrhea. In some cases no symptoms are present.
  1. Latent phase: During this 1-4 month period, most dogs are asymptomatic. 
  1. Chronic phase: Heart failure begins during this phase. Signs include irregular heartbeat, shortness of breath, coughing, and exercise intolerance.

Because Chagas disease affects the heart muscle, dogs may experience sudden death during any of the phases. Death is more common during the chronic phase, however.

Diagnosis and Treatment

The diagnosis of Chagas disease in dogs is difficult, as the numbers of protozoa in the bloodstream and lymph nodes can be low. A clinical diagnosis is typically made based on symptoms and health history.

There is currently no cure for Chagas disease, and treatment generally revolves around supporting the patient’s overall health and taking measures to strengthen the heart.

Preventing Chagas

The best way to prevent Chagas disease in dogs is by limiting their contact with the kissing bug since no vaccine exists. 

  • Keep pets inside at night whenever possible.
  • If your dog must sleep outdoors, keep them away from wood and brush piles (where kissing bugs like to live) and utilize screening over kennels to protect them from insects.
  • Reduce outdoor lighting, or keep pets in darkened areas at night.
  • Control insects on your property by removing wood and brush piles.

Please don’t hesitate to contact the team at Leon Valley Veterinary Hospital for more information about Chagas disease in pets.