Researchers at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM), in collaboration with the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases (IIAD) at Texas A&M, have received funding for the third phase of research from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to secure the health of dogs working at the United States and Mexico border.
With this new wave of funding, Dr. Sarah Hamer, an associate professor in the CVM’s Department of Veterinary Integrative Biosciences (VIBS); Alyssa Meyers, one of Hamer’s doctoral students; and a team of researchers are taking an in-depth look at dogs working along the U.S.-Mexico border to further study the impending health implications of Chagas disease and the effect this disease has on the canines’ ability to work.
Chagas disease, caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, is transmitted through kissing bugs, or cone-nose bugs, and can cause acute or chronic heart disease or death in dogs and humans.
While Chagas disease has long been known in Central and South America, there is now increasing awareness for the disease in the southern United States where kissing bugs occur.
“Though Chagas is an emerging disease that we know is in Texas and know can infect dogs and people, we don’t know the full extent of the impact or spread of the disease,” said IIAD director Melissa Berquist, Ph.D. IIAD is a U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Center of Excellence and a unit of Texas A&M AgriLife.
“By gaining a better understanding of the geographic areas where dogs are becoming exposed and the prevalence of exposure, we are gaining critical information for health management and vector control programs in order to decrease transmission within the DHS human and canine workforce,” she said.
“The DHS maintains more than 3,000 working dogs across the country, including the security dogs at the airports, customs and border protection dogs, Coast Guard dogs, federal protective service dogs, and secret service dogs,” Meyers explained. “These are highly valuable dogs, often selected for their drive and pedigree, and, unfortunately, our initial research found that up to 18 percent of the working dogs along the Texas-Mexico border were positive for exposure to T. cruzi, the Chagas parasite.”
The team then expanded their study to look at government working dogs across the U.S., not just on the southern border. This expanded study found that approximately 7 percent of the dogs were exposed to the parasite that causes Chagas disease.
After this eye-opening discovery, Hamer decided to narrow the research on the long-lasting health implications of Chagas disease in these working dogs.
“It’s pretty cool work because we’re intercepting these border patrol dogs while they’re working,” Hamer said. “We just want a glimpse, to take a blood sample, monitor their heart, have them run on a treadmill, and we want to put on a Fit Bark—which is like a Fit Bit, but for dogs—all while they’re still working and doing their normal jobs.”
Because there is no vaccination to prevent Chagas disease in humans or animals, and treatment is limited, Meyers said the team also plans to use this grant to focus on what can be done to control the kissing bugs and prevent transmission.
“Vector control includes things like clearing brush where kissing bugs can dwell from around kennels and houses, minimizing the use of light at night because kissing bugs are drawn to light, and securing access to kennels, to prevent bugs from getting in,” Meyers said.
Although securing the kennels may seem like an easy fix, it can be a costly and challenging intervention for these facilities, which house dozens of dogs, according to Hamer.
Along with studying Chagas disease, Hamer’s team will be using the grant to study other vector-borne disease- including those spread by ticks and mosquitoes- that may impact these working dogs.
“Because these working dogs spend lots of time outside where they may be exposed to vectors, they may provide a sensitive indication of the different vector-borne infections across the landscape that are not only important for dog health, but also human health,” Hamer said. “Our studies will have an increased focus on what we can do to ensure these animals remain healthy. We’re excited that Texas A&M University is really helping secure the health of these important animals that are on the frontlines of security for our country.”
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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 Dr. 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 wood piles 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, please click here.
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.
With no vaccine or treatment available, prevention is key in protecting your pet from Chagas. Fortunately, Hamer and her team are working to learn more about Chagas and how to better protect you and your pets.
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