An NBC 5 investigation found hundreds of dogs in Texas are infected with the deadly parasite that causes Chagas disease.
For months, NBC 5 Senior Investigative Reporter Scott Friedman teamed up with The Dallas Morning News’ Dr. Seema Yasmin to investigate a hidden threat known as The Kissing Bug, which has infected at least a dozen people in Texas.
In Texas the disease has infected family pets; prized hunting dogs and even military K-9’s that protect U.S. troops. Right now, no one seems to know exactly how many more dogs could be at risk.
Meet Kiska, a Japanese Spitz, a rare dog breed kept alive with a pacemaker.
“My husband called me and said Kiska fell over,” said Cora Fortin, who at the time lived in Plano.
Kiska kept collapsing. A vet in Plano said Kiska’s only hope was a pacemaker operation at Texas A&M in College Station.
“She was passing out all the way down there, so we didn’t know if she would make it,” said Fortin.
Kiska survived but what caused her heart to fail was a bigger surprise. It was Chagas disease, caused by a rare parasite transmitted by kissing bugs.
Chagas is usually found in tropical climates of Mexico, South and Central America. But cases of locally transmitted Chagas disease have not been documented in Texas until more recently.
Fortin wants people to know dogs can get this disease in Collin County. But it’s not just there.
All over the state there are cases of dogs getting sick with Chagas, many of them showing up for treatment at the Texas A&M Veterinary School.
“I diagnosed a little Yorkie that lived in Downtown Dallas not too long ago, so yes, it’s everywhere,” said Dr. Ashley Saunders, a veterinary cardiologist with Texas A&M.
In some cases the dogs are so sick there’s no saving them.
“I think we shock a lot of people and I think it’s one of the hardest things for me is we have some clients who come in and they have no idea the disease even exists,” said Saunders.
Researchers at Texas A&M tested dogs at animal shelters statewide and found many shelter dogs have Chagas.
“The study that just wrapped up, about 10 percent of dogs across the state were infected,” said Sarah Hamer, Texas A&M researcher.
Officially the Texas Department of State Health Services reports 351 dogs with Chagas since the state began tracking it two years ago.
Tom Sidwa, State Public Health Veterinarian with the Texas Department of State Health Services, said there’s no doubt Chagas will grow and kill more dogs in the state.
However, it’s hard to estimate the total number of dogs infected because many dogs are never tested.
“So many of the dogs seen are young dogs that are just really hit hard by the disease … and sometimes, sudden death,” said Sidwa.
It’s already killed U.S. Military working dogs in Texas.
At Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, about 70 military working dogs have been infected in the last nine years.
Bomb, drug and patrol dogs train at Lackland to serve with U.S. troops all over the world.
“When one of these dogs become sick, and for any reason can’t do its job that’s a major loss because that whole team is taken out they’re not able to perform their mission,” Col. Cheryl Sofaly, Director of the DOD Military Working Dog Hospital at Lackland Air Force Base.
Some dogs with Chagas are still working, but ones that develop more serious symptoms are retired from service.
“If they’ve got heart disease that makes it very hard for them to do that job effectively,” said Sofaly.
Losing a military dog is expensive. It costs about $20,000 to train each one.
When Chagas first surfaced here in 2006, military veterinarians worked to track down the source.
A search of the base turned up bugs in and around kennels where the dogs sleep.
Dogs that sleep outside and hunting dogs are more likely to be infected. The bugs like wooded areas and bite at night. Because dogs sometimes eat infected bugs it may be even easier for them to become infected than people.
That’s how the Fortin’s suspect Kiska got sick.
“One day she brought this strange looking insect into the house,” said Fortin.
Before they could snatch it away, she ate it.
Recently, Kiska has developed more symptoms including an enlarged heart.
“We just really don’t know what’s going to happen next,” said Fortin.
There’s no cure, so the Fortin’s appreciate every day.
“She’s totally a member of the family and we will be devastated when the day comes we lose her,” said Fortin.
At Lackland, the military has been able to reduce the number of new cases of Chagas by putting up screens around the kennels and by treating the areas with pesticides, but they are still seeing about 4-5 new cases a year in dogs.
To protect your pets, veterinarians suggest keeping them indoors late at night and don’t let them sleep outside.
Keep piles of wood and brush away from your home and any area where small animals might nest will attract the bugs.
If your dog coughs, has shortness of breath and has fainting spells, it’s worth asking your vet about Chagas.
You can read more about this from Dr. Seema Yasmin in Tuesday’s edition of The Dallas Morning News -- and online at DallasNews.com.