An emerging disease in recent years, Chagas disease is seen mainly in the Southern United States, and also down into South America. This very dangerous disease is caused by a single cell, intracellular protozoan parasite (known as trypanosoma) which is transmitted most commonly to dogs and/or other mammals by the bite of a type of insect known as “kissing bugs.” Transmission may also occur through contact with contaminated, infected tissue and/or through blood transfusions.
While many dogs may show clinical symptoms of nonspecific acute illness during the first few weeks of exposure (i.e. fever, loss of appetite, swollen liver/spleen and lymph nodes, diarrhea or neurological difficulties), most pets seem to be more predisposed to the chronic effects of the disease, where serious affects on the brain and/or most commonly the heart may be seen months or even years later. Symptoms at that point may include exercise intolerance, weakness, collapse, irregular and increased heart rates, which ultimately often lead to right sided congestive heart failure.
Diagnosis is usually based on blood testing at special labs, such as one located at the veterinary school in Texas, where at least 400 dogs have died. Treatment is mainly directed at supportive care, both in the acute phase and chronic phase of illness, with the most important aspects involving control of the cardiac symptoms. Since there is no defined cure of this disease, prognosis is very guarded for long-term recovery. Early detection, vector (insect) elimination/reduction, as well as better testing seem to be helpful and good goals to try and limit the spread of this emerging disease.