Whether your dog stays outside for hours at a time or is primarily an inside dog, all dogs are at risk for Chagas disease, a potentially fatal disease that affects the heart and other organ systems.
Chagas 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.
"Kissing bugs are blood-sucking insects that often hang out in or around places where sources of blood are readily available, such as dog kennels, woodrat nests and, unfortunately, sometimes in human dwellings," said Sarah Hamer, an associate professor at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences. "The parasite is transmitted to dogs when they are exposed to the feces of the bug or when they eat the bugs. About 60 percent of kissing bugs across Texas are infected with the parasite.
"Many dogs can be infected with the Chagas parasite and show no signs of disease, while others may develop life-threatening heart complications," Hamer added.
Chagas symptoms can appear within weeks of infection (acute) or months to years later (chronic). Typically, dogs that are younger than 2 years old are more likely to develop acute disease, with possible symptoms of diarrhea, lethargy, seizures, swollen lymph nodes, fluid retention and heart failure. Symptoms that occur during chronic disease are those of congestive heart failure, including lethargy, fainting, increased heart rate or abnormal heart rhythm and fluid buildup in the abdomen or lungs.
Although there is no vaccine or veterinary treatment for Chagas disease, pets can be protected through insect control.
By reducing the amount of outdoor lighting at night, kissing bugs may be less attracted to an area. If you keep your dog in a kennel outside at night, consider installing a protective screen on the kennel. In addition, try to keep your backyard free of woodpiles and other brushy areas, because these areas can serve as a breeding ground for infected insects. Hamer added that licensed pest control operators can help recommend a pest control plan to combat the bugs.
To better protect humans and animals from Chagas, Hamer and a team of researchers have been coordinating a special project since 2013.
"We run a 'Kissing Bug Citizen Science' program to engage the public in Chagas research and provide resources for people to better protect themselves and their pets," Hamer said. "Our program accepts kissing bugs encountered by the public across the Southern United States. Submitters provide important data, including the location, time and behavior of the bug when it was encountered. Each bug provides a wealth of information for our research -- we've received over 4,000 kissing bugs since the start of our program."
Hamer added that her research helps to characterize the natural cycle of Chagas transmission and determine risk factors for human and animal exposure.
For more information on Hamer's project, see kissingbug.tamu.edu.
A kissing bug app is also available on iTunes and Google Play. Through the website and apps, Hamer said the public can submit photos of bugs if they are unsure if they are kissing bugs.