Chagas disease impacting animals in San Antonio area

Vets and a local pet rescue are spreading awareness of the disease in pets

SAN ANTONIO – A warning for pet owners in San Antonio -- a potentially deadly disease is impacting animals in the area.

“Chagas disease is just a parasite,” Dr. Roy Madigan, the director at the Animal Hospital of Smithson Valley, said.

According to Dr. Madigan, 12% of dogs in Texas have Chagas disease, and it’s more prevalent the farther South you go.

Similar to heartworm, animals can become infected by Chagas if they’re bitten by kissing bugs.

“That parasite loves to go inside of tissues, and it has an affinity for heart tissues specifically,” Madigan said.

The symptoms of Chagas can show up in a number of ways.

According to the Veterinary Centers of America Inc, some of the less severe symptoms are lethargy, decreased appetite, and weight loss. More severe cases can have symptoms like fainting, vomiting, heart failure, and fluid in the abdomen.

Unfortunately, one symptom is sudden death. It’s something volunteers at Tracys Paws Rescue know a lot about.

“We had several seemingly healthy dogs in our care that were playing fetch and ball in the play yards one day and died suddenly the next day, and we were devastated,” Robbi Cowley, a volunteer with the rescue, said.

Their heartbreaking experience in August 2020 led rescuers to ask the question, “what can we do now?”

“When we had that happen to us, we made the commitment that we would never hand over another dog to another family that we had not tested for Chagas disease,” Cowley said.

Testing for Chagas isn’t done at every veterinarian’s office. Rather, pet owners need to seek it out on their own.

However, Dr. Madigan said they’re trying to change that.

“We’re currently in the process of developing a test that we can run in-house so every veterinarian will have access to that,” Dr. Madigan said.

Dr. Madigan and volunteers like Robbi Cowley are working to bring more awareness of Chagas disease. While there is no FDA-approved treatment yet, it doesn’t need to be a death sentence for your pet.

Madigan has filed an INAD (investigational new animal drug) he believes will be a lifesaver.

“It uses a combination of two different drugs, so they’ve been repurposed,” Madigan said. “And with those two drugs, if you can start it and you can continue on before you’re in full heart failure, these guys are 100% cure rate.”

The treatment lasts a full calendar year as well and is most effective if utilized early.

More on KSAT:

Chaining a dog outside will be illegal in Texas starting in 2022

About the Authors:

Leigh Waldman is a news reporter at KSAT 12. She joined the station in 2021. Leigh comes to San Antonio from the Midwest after spending time at a station in Omaha, NE. After two winters there, she knew it was time to come home to Texas. When Leigh is not at work, she enjoys eating, playing with her dogs and spending time with family.

Adam Barraza is a photojournalist at KSAT 12 and an El Paso native. He interned at KVIA, the local ABC affiliate, while still in high school. He then moved to San Antonio and, after earning a degree from San Antonio College and the University of the Incarnate Word, started working in news. He’s also a diehard Dodgers fan and an avid sneakerhead.