Every year during late spring and early summer I get the same question from many pet parents: “Can my dog or cat get Chagas disease from kissing bugs?” The short answer is, “It’s extremely rare, but yes, and you can get it, too.” The longer answer is, “Yes, but it’s really rare and incredibly complicated. There’s a little more to Chagas disease we need to discuss.” Let’s discuss kissing bugs, Chagas disease and the potential threat they pose to dogs, cats and people.
What are kissing bugs?
Kissing bugs are also known as triatomine or conenose bugs. Entomologists commonly refer to members of this bug family, Reduviidae, as “assassin bugs” because they prey on other insects. But kissing bugs (genus Triatoma) differ from other members of their insect family tree, preferring to dine on the blood of animals and humans. Which brings us to that odd name, “kissing bug.”
Kissing bugs get their name from their fondness for biting humans around the mouth or eyes. Because fellow humans tend to kiss in these facial areas, someone called them “kissing bugs” and it stuck. My guess is that person was never attacked by a “kissing bug.” If he or she had, I bet we’d call them “heart attack bugs.” We’ll get to that in a minute.
Where do kissing bugs live?
Kissing bugs are found throughout the southern half of the United States, especially Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and along the U.S./Mexico border. Kissing bugs love to hide beneath porches, between rocks and cracks of cement, in wood and debris piles, dog houses, kennels, chicken coops, and your home. Yep, pretty much anywhere.
What do kissing bugs look like?
They’re easy to identify because of their unique cone-shaped head, two long, thin antennae and spindly legs attached to a dark brown to black bulbous body with red, orange or yellow stripes along the edges. I often tell pet parents they look like flying pine cone scales. There are a lot of bugs that look very similar to kissing bugs and flying pine cone parts so do your homework before frightening the neighborhood.
If you spy an actual kissing bug, be very careful. Never touch a kissing bug with your bare hands; always wear gloves and proper protective gear such as eye shields. Kissing bugs carry the culprit behind deadly Chagas disease, the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, inside their feces.
How do pets get chagas disease?
Chagas disease is transmitted whenever a kissing bug bites an animal, defecates T. cruzi and the parasite enters the bite opening. The good news is that not all kissing bug bites result in Chagas disease. In most cases, your pet will only suffer from short-term swelling and fever, not full-blown Chagas disease.
The symptoms of Chagas disease in humans, dogs and cats begin with swelling at the bite sites, fever, fatigue and swollen lymph nodes. Younger infected animals seem to develop more severe disease. The initial signs of Chagas disease in pets last about 30 days, and then appear to lessen. Usually within 8 months of infection, the severe and chronic form of Chagas returns and persists until the animal dies.
In humans, Chagas can lie dormant for decades before recurring. Once the long-term form begins, it often leads to infection of the heart known as myocarditis, heart enlargement (cardiomyopathy), heart failure and cardiac arrest. That’s why I’d name them “heart attack bugs.” Chagas disease is diagnosed based on exposure to kissing bugs and special blood tests.
Chagas disease is a definite concern for dogs in the southern U.S. We don’t have enough information to fully understand Chagas disease in cats. We know cats are susceptible to the Latin American variant but no confirmed cases have been reported in the United States yet. It is critical to keep all dogs, cats and humans away from contact with kissing bugs. The stakes are too high.
There is no treatment currently available in the U.S. for Chagas disease in dogs or cats. Many infected dogs are euthanized once the diagnosis is confirmed. For humans, treatment is only available through the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It’s that serious. Humans treated by the CDC have a very guarded prognosis for complete recovery.
Kissing bugs: A bad bug with an innocent name. If you think you have met a kissing bug, avoid it. Chances are you’ll never know anyone, human or animal, with Chagas disease. Let’s work to keep it that way.
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