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Chagas Disease in Dogs (Kissing Bug Disease)

What Is Chagas Disease in Dogs?

Chagas Disease in Dogs, also known as “Kissing Bug Disease” or “American Trypanosomiasis,” is caused by a blood parasite called Trypanosoma cruzi, which is transmitted by kissing bugs.

This disease affects both humans and animals, including dogs, and is estimated to afflict around 8 million people. Chagas Disease is primarily found in the Americas, particularly in Latin America, and has been reported in the Southern United States. However, it remains largely underrecognized, underdiagnosed, and underreported in both human and canine cases.

Kissing bugs, the carriers of the disease, are currently present in 29 states across the United States, spanning from the west to the east coast. Studies suggest that approximately 50% of kissing bugs may carry the parasite responsible for Chagas Disease.

Although most infected dogs do not show symptoms, testing indicates that in some regions, about 8% of dogs may have been infected. In high-risk environments, the infection rate among dogs can climb to 30-50%.


While the majority of infected dogs don’t exhibit any symptoms, those that do often manifest issues related to heart disease, ranging from mild to severe. Common symptoms include:

  • Lethargy
  • Reduced energy levels
  • Decreased interest or ability to engage in usual activities
  • Depressive behavior
  • Loss of appetite

More severe manifestations may include:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Discoloration of gums (pale or purple/blue)
  • Sudden death resulting from heart damage

In cases where the parasites invade the spine or brain, symptoms may include:

  • Weakness
  • Difficulty walking
  • Stumbling

In rare instances, nerve damage affecting the esophagus and colon can lead to symptoms such as constipation or regurgitation, resembling vomiting.


Chagas disease in dogs stems from a blood parasite known as Trypanosoma cruzi. This parasite resides in the bloodstream of various hosts, including raccoons, skunks, armadillos, coyotes, squirrels, and other mammals. Humans and domestic animals such as dogs, cats, cattle, and horses can also serve as hosts.

The infection cycle begins when a kissing bug bites and feeds on the blood of an infected host. The parasite proliferates within the kissing bug and is subsequently excreted in its feces. This contaminated feces can enter a new animal’s body either when the kissing bug bites and feeds on them, or through accidental contact with the eyes or ingestion.

Dogs may also become infected by consuming infected kissing bugs or by ingesting an infected host animal like a raccoon or squirrel. Once the parasite enters the new animal’s body, it migrates to the heart and begins multiplying within the heart muscle. This process damages the heart and may eventually lead to heart failure. In rare instances, the parasite can travel to other regions such as the spine or brain, causing damage to the nerve cells and resulting in neurological complications.


Diagnosing Chagas disease in dogs can present challenges as there are no specific physical exam findings indicative of the disease, necessitating laboratory testing.

Antibody Testing:

The primary diagnostic method involves detecting antibodies to the parasite. This can be achieved through direct antibody tests or by measuring antibody titers indirectly. However, it’s important to note that infected dogs typically don’t produce detectable antibodies until around 21 days post-infection, while symptoms usually manifest within approximately 14 days of infection. Consequently, during the early stages, antibody tests may yield negative results, and titers may remain low despite the presence of Chagas disease.

PCR Tests:

PCR tests, which identify the parasite’s DNA in a dog’s blood, can be utilized for diagnosis, although they may not be widely available.

Rule Out Other Diseases:

Given that Chagas disease symptoms can be nonspecific and overlap with those of various other conditions, it’s crucial to eliminate alternative diagnoses. Veterinarians conduct thorough physical examinations and may recommend additional tests to determine the underlying cause of a dog’s symptoms.

These supplementary tests may include routine blood work and urine analysis to identify signs of infection or blood loss, assess liver and kidney function, and evaluate electrolyte levels and thyroid function. Further diagnostic measures such as x-rays or cardiac evaluations like electrocardiograms (EKGs) and echocardiograms may also be advised to assess heart function.


Fortunately, the majority of dogs with Chagas disease remain asymptomatic and thus do not require treatment. However, for those that exhibit symptoms, treatment options are currently limited.

Managing the symptoms caused by the parasites, particularly in the heart, spine, or brain, is a critical aspect of treatment. For heart-related issues, treatment may involve the use of diuretics and blood pressure medications to regulate fluid buildup and blood pressure. Additionally, medications aimed at improving the heart’s contraction may be prescribed. In cases where Chagas disease affects the spine or brain, anti-inflammatory drugs may be employed to alleviate symptoms and mitigate damage.

Ideally, treatment would target the parasites directly to prevent further harm to the heart or other organs. However, conventional medications used against other parasites have shown limited effectiveness against the Chagas disease parasite.

While there are a few medications that have demonstrated some efficacy against Chagas disease, access to them in the United States may be challenging. Nevertheless, ongoing research offers hope for the development of more accessible and effective treatment options in the future.

Living and Management

Chagas disease in dogs progresses through three distinct phases: acute, latent, and chronic.

Acute Stage of Chagas Disease:

During the acute phase, the parasites inflict significant damage, resulting in general illness in the dog. This phase may also mark the onset of heart disease or heart failure.

Latent Stage of Chagas Disease:

Following the acute phase, dogs may enter a latent period where they display no noticeable symptoms of the disease. Alternatively, some dogs may progress to the chronic phase, characterized by persistent alterations in the heart. These changes continue to impair the heart’s normal function and induce symptoms.

Chronic Stage of Chagas Disease:

In the chronic stage, the alterations within the heart are typically irreversible. Therefore, management of heart disease focuses on supportive care, which involves administering medications to address fluid retention, regulate blood pressure, and enhance heart contractions.

Sudden death attributed to heart disease is most prevalent among dogs under 1 year old who have developed the chronic form of Chagas disease.


Given the potential fatality of Chagas disease in dogs and the challenges associated with diagnosis and treatment, prioritizing prevention is crucial. Since infected kissing bugs serve as the primary source of transmission, avoiding contact with them is paramount.

Fortunately, some medications commonly administered to dogs for flea and tick protection have demonstrated effectiveness against kissing bugs. Medications such as Bravecto, Nexgard, and Trifexis have been proven to eliminate kissing bugs. However, not all flea and tick medications are effective against these bugs. For instance, fipronil-based products do not appear to be effective, and heartworm prevention medication like ivermectin does not offer protection against kissing bugs.

It’s advisable to routinely check your dog for ticks and kissing bugs after outdoor activities, as both can transmit serious diseases to both dogs and humans.

Additionally, preventing dogs from consuming wild animals is advisable, as they can serve as potential sources of infection. Testing pregnant dogs for Chagas disease is also recommended to prevent maternal transmission to their puppies. Developing these habits can significantly reduce the risk of Chagas disease in dogs.

Kissing Bug Disease FAQs

Can kissing bugs cause the death of dogs?

Kissing bugs themselves don’t directly cause the death of dogs. However, these bugs can harbor and transmit a parasite responsible for Chagas disease. While not all exposed dogs will show symptoms, some may develop fatal heart disease as a result.

Is kissing bug disease contagious?

Kissing bug disease stems from a parasite transmitted by kissing bugs. Apart from the scenario where a mother dog passes it on to her puppies, an infected dog cannot directly transmit the disease to another dog or person. The transmission must occur through the bite of the kissing bug.

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