Story by Briley Lambert
Dogs working at the United States-Mexico border face daily obstacles as they endeavor to keep the country safe from terrorism and criminal trafficking, but a team of researchers at the Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences (CVM) and its Small Animal Hospital (SAH) is working to ensure that Chagas disease is not one of those obstacles.
Working with Dr. Ashley Saunders, a cardiologist at the SAH, CVM associate professor Dr. Sarah Hamer and recent doctoral graduate Alyssa Meyers have spent the past four years examining the impending health implications of Chagas disease and the effect this disease has on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) working dogs’ ability to work.
As a result of their early findings, last year, the team received DHS funding to complete the third phase of the study, which is also being done in collaboration with the Institute for Infectious Animal Diseases (IIAD) at Texas A&M.
Chagas disease, caused by the protozoan parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, is transmitted through kissing, or conenose, bugs. 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.
Hamer, Meyers, and Saunders all have devoted portions of their research to understanding the full impact of Chagas disease. When they began looking at government working dogs across the U.S.—and not just on the southern border— they found that approximately 7 percent were exposed to the parasite that causes Chagas disease.
“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 collaboration with Dr. Hamer’s lab is important for advancing our understanding of Chagas disease from all aspects—the epidemiology of the disease, the vectors, and the dogs themselves,” Saunders said. “It is a more effective way to work and learn and has been invaluable.”
Their work also has potential to affect the work Saunders does in the SAH every day, she said.
“We routinely see dogs with heart disease attributed to Chagas disease,” she said. “For clinical patients, the disease can be difficult to manage and prognosis can be poor with no available treatment. This is frustrating for owners and us.
“Getting involved in this research allows us to better understand the disease and treat our patients,” she said.