Background: The range of American canine hepatozoonosis (ACH) is expanding from the southern USA northward. Transmission of Hepatozoon americanum occurs by ingestion of infected Gulf Coast ticks, Amblyomma maculatum. The source of the protozoan for the tick remains undetermined; infected dogs are unusual hosts for the tick.
Objective: Compare possible sources of infection by field investigations of 2 multiple-dog outbreaks of ACH.
Animals: Twenty-eight privately owned dogs (Canis familiaris), 1 coyote (Canis latrans), 31 wild-trapped cotton rats (Sigmodon hispidus), 24 wild-trapped field mice (Peromyscus leucopus), and 9 wild-caught rabbits (Sylvilagus spp.) from sites in eastern Oklahoma were monitored for hepatozoonosis. Six laboratory-raised cotton rats (S. hispidus), 6 Sprague-Dawley rats (Rattus norvegicus), 6 C57BL/6J-Lystbg-J/J mice (Mus musculus), 6 outbred white mice (M. musculus), 6 New Zealand white rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus), and 2 dogs were acquired through commercial vendors for experimental transmission trials of H. americanum.
Methods: Four of 15 dogs in a rural neighborhood and 5/12 hunting Beagles were confirmed to be infected by blood smear examination, muscle biopsy, and polymerase chain reaction assay of the 18S rRNA gene of Hepatozoon species. Histories and tick host preferences led to field collections of common prey of canids and experimental transmission trials of H. americanum to selected prey (M. musculus, S. hispidus, R. norvegicus, and O. cuniculus).
Results: Dogs with ready access to prey (4/15 dogs) or that were fed prey retrieved from hunts (5/12 hunting Beagles) became infected, providing evidence that predation is an important epidemiologic component of ACH infection. Experimental transmission studies identified a quiescent, infectious stage (cystozoite) of the parasite that provides an alternate mode of transmission to canids through predation, demonstrating that cotton rats, mice, and rabbits but not brown rats may act as paratenic hosts of H. americanum.
Conclusions and Clinical Importance: Predation of prey harboring infected A. maculatum or containing cystozoites of H. americanum in their tissues provide 2 modes of transmission of ACH to dogs, putting unconfined dogs at increased risk of infection in endemic areas.