By Dr. Becker
"Kissing bugs" have made the U.S. their home since the 1800s, but they're just now making headlines because they're showing up in an increasing number of states (28 to be exact).
Although they've historically inhabited mostly southern states, they've now inched their way as far north as Illinois, as far west as California and all the way to the Eastern seaboard.
Kissing bugs are an insect of many names. They're also called triatomine bugs, reduviid bugs, cone-nosed bugs and, the worst, blood suckers. The fact is, kissing bugs earned their moniker because they feed on blood (of mammals, birds and reptiles), and they often bite on the face.
Kissing Bugs Are Nocturnal and May Live Indoors
Kissing bugs are primarily found in rural areas of the southern U.S., Mexico, Central America and South America. They may live indoors or outdoors, but they tend to congregate around a blood host. In homes with well-sealed doors, windows and walls, kissing bugs are unlikely to live indoors.
However, in substandard housing the bugs may be found in bedrooms (especially under mattresses or night stands), near pet sleeping areas, or in areas with rodent infestations. According to the CDC, they may also be found:1
Beneath porches Between rocky structures Under cement In rock, wood, brush piles, or beneath bark In rodent nests or animal burrows In outdoor dog houses or kennels In chicken coops or houses
If you think you have kissing bugs in or around your home, be aware that they appear similar to other types of insects.
Assassin bugs and wheel bugs are often confused with kissing bugs, but the former do not feed on blood and do not carry Chagas disease. If you're not sure, an entomologist can give you clarification.
The best way to keep such bugs out of your home is to seal any holes and cracks around windows, walls, roof and doors, and any leading to the outside, using screens on doors and windows. Keeping your pet indoors at night and keeping your home and pet areas clean are also recommended.
Using an all-natural outdoor bug deterrent, such as cedar oil spray or cedar oil yard spray, may help reduce the presence of unwanted bugs in your pet's outdoor area.
Are Kissing Bugs Dangerous?
Kissing bugs, which resemble cockroaches, may carry the parasite Trypanosoma cruzi, which causes Chagas disease (also known as American trypanosomiasis). Transmission to humans is rare, and, fortunately, doesn't typically occur from one bite, but it does happen.
T. cruzi parasites are found in the bugs' feces. After biting a person (again, often on the face) and ingesting blood, the bug will defecate.
If the feces gets spread into a person's eyes, nose or mouth, the parasite can enter your body and infection can occur. Still, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explained:2
"It is important to note that not all triatomine bugs are infected with the parasite that causes Chagas disease. The likelihood of getting Chagas disease from a triatomine bug in the United States is low, even if the bug is infected."
There are an estimated 300,000 cases of Chagas in the U.S. as of 2015, with most infections originating in Latin America, according to the CDC.3
During the acute phase of Chagas disease, which typically lasts for a few weeks to a few months, symptoms may be completely absent or mild, including fever, fatigue, body aches, rash, headache, loss of appetite, diarrhea and vomiting.
In some cases, "Romaña's sign," which is swelling of the eyelids or side of the face near where the bite wound occurred or the feces were deposited, may occur.
Symptoms of the acute phase often go away on their own, although in young children the disease rarely causes severe inflammation of the heart or brain, leading to death. The infection then moves into the chronic phase, in which the disease may be silent for decades or even for life. In about 30 percent of cases, however, life-threatening heart problems and intestinal complications can result.4
The saliva from certain kissing bugs may also cause allergic reaction in some people, including anaphylactic shock.
Are Pets at Risk From Kissing Bugs?
Dogs and cats may be infected with Chagas disease and display similar signs and symptoms as infected humans, including an acute and chronic phase of infection. As with humans, after the acute phase some dogs enter an asymptomatic period that can last months to years.
During that time, however, there is a progressive quiet development of the parasite. This leads to degeneration and inflammation of the heart, which can eventually cause heart failure and death.
If the infection is severe, dogs may develop weakness, anemia, and an enlarged spleen and lymph nodes. Rarely, if large numbers of the parasite enter the heart, they can cause inflammation that leads to sudden collapse and death. Or, the parasites may cause the heart muscle to fail gradually over time.
With some infected dogs, symptoms of weakness and lack of coordination are profound. Cats may have convulsions and paralysis of the back legs.
Sadly, because there is no cure for Chagas disease in pets and because it is zoonotic, meaning it can be spread to people, many veterinarians recommend euthanizing pets with this condition.
There are certain natural remedies that may benefit Chagas-positive animals, but they should be used under the direct supervision of a veterinarian. I have never personally treated a pet with this disease, but my holistic colleagues in South America tell me the herbs pau d'arco, turmeric and oregano may be beneficial, as well as Otoba extract.
Also potentially helpful are colloidal silver, grapefruit seed extract, and thymus extract, as well as several homeopathic remedies to treat the animal's specific symptoms.
Be aware that pets may be infected not only directly from the feces of an infected bug but also by eating an infected bug, eating the poop of an infected host animal or eating the host animal itself (small animals such as guinea pigs, rats, opossums, raccoons, and armadillos can serve as reservoirs for the parasite).
Because prevention is better than a cure, have your pet sleep indoors at night, especially if you live in an area where kissing bugs are known to frequent.