A lethal kiss for your beloved pet; vet warns of dangers of kissing bugs ahead of summer heat

Kissing Bug (Triatominae)
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) — As a pet owner, you know to look out for fleas and ticks. But have you worried about the kissing bug? If you haven't, you probably should.

The bug is native to South America, but over recent years has worked its way north into the southern reaches of the United States. But the bug itself isn't the problem. It's the disease it brings with it, which can prove a serious - if not fatal - problem.

Take it from Memory Armstrong, a woman who has spent many years on the dog show circuit, showing Great Danes. She has four of her own currently, and from time to time - she also breeds them. She's part of a nationwide network of breeders and those who frequent dog shows. It's how she met one woman, Lori, who had a sad story about one her Great Danes and its puppies.

"They started becoming very ill," Armstrong said. "It took them a while to figure out what was wrong with the puppies and it turns out they had Chagas disease."

Five of the eight puppies died. They contracted the disease in utero from their mother. The mother and three of the puppies survived after undergoing new, experimental treatment.

Chagas disease in dogs mimics a condition called dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM. It also can present with a number of other symptoms, including lack of appetite, lethargy, seizures, swollen lymph nodes and more. DCM is a common form of heart disease for big dogs, like Great Danes, which is why some owners never catch the Chagas disease - likening the dog's death to a case of DCM.

As for Armstrong's friend, after her dogs were diagnosed, she quickly realized she not only had a problem - she had an infestation.

"She found that she had an infestation in her subflooring and the walls," Armstrong said.

According to Texas A&M research through the Agriculture and Life Sciences Department, kissing bugs have been established in 28 states, including Virginia and as far north as Pennsylvania.

Kissing bugs – or Trypanosoma cruzi – are one of the primary vectors of Chagas disease. If a bug is infected with the parasite, it can transmit the parasite through its feces as the bug poops while feeding. The transmission can then happen when that bug poop is accidentally rubbed into the bite wound or into a mucous membrane like the mouth or eyes.

You can learn more about transmission of the disease and kissing bugs on the CDC's website here.

WHSV's sister station, WIS, met up with Dr. Brian Spilker, a veterinarian in Lugoff, to talk about the prevalence of kissing bugs. Dr. Spilker said he has seen them in his own backyard and he said as the days get warmer, the bugs will only get worse.

"It's a very serious problem and there's no real good treatment to get rid of it and it's a long treatment process," Dr. Spilker said. "They usually like sleeping animals or people because they're not moving and they're easy targets."

Kissing bugs are nocturnal. They hide during the day and come out at night. They're known as "bloodsuckers" and get their infamous name from the way they bite - generally around the mouth and eyes. Dr. Spilker said they generally hide in holes or cracks in walls, or under mattresses if they've gotten inside your home. They can also be outdoors under piles of mulch or leaves. He recommends checking over your animals if they go outside before they come in to make sure they're not bringing the bugs in with them. It might also help to spray with insecticide on the exterior perimeter of your home, he said.

Armstrong and her friend are involved in a Facebook group called "Chagas Awareness" where they talk about the threat to pets and the developments in research for a treatment. Armstrong's friend's dogs were in treatment through Texas A&M, which has a full research project dedicated to the subject. You can find the Facebook page here.

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