Leishmaniasis: What you need to know


This terrible disease works like a silent enemy and claims every year hundreds of doggy lives only in Spain. But there’s more to it and you have the right to know.


Image by Dariia

            Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Phlebotomus is a type of fly that carries a parasite who causes Leishmaniasis. Being a fly means it’s with us ALL YEAR ROUND (yes, not only for summertime!). And if this Leishmaniasis name rings a distant bell on your head, yes, that’s because there is a variant that affects people, with similar symptoms and effects as dogs, although usually less famous. And yes, it can be a zoonosis (transmitted from animals to people).


Scary, yes. 

The reason people usually don’t show symptoms is because our immune system deals with the parasite better than dogs’ do. Although is a person is not in good condition, it can have an impact on their health. And boy, it does.



What do I Need To Know?


To explain symptoms you need to know there are two ways for this terrible disease of showing itself, sometimes both can be found in the same individual: cutaneous and visceral. Some authors include a third one, the mucocutaneous, within the cutaneous one. Not all of them have to be present at the same time and unfortunately they can be confused with many other diseases. This poor baby on the picture courtesy of BMC seems to have them all (1).


                          Image: BMC


Skin lesions which seem to never heal, very common in ears and nose; also elbows and every part that gets usually scratched with things;

Poor quality skin and hair, the latter being thin and opaque;

Excessive nail growth;

Lack of or very thin hair around the eyes.



This form, way more aggressive than the previous one, shows itself because vital organs like liver and kidneys are under attack. Prognosis of this one is poor:

Loss of weight and energy;

Muscular atrophy;

Loss of appetite.

Where can it be found?

This disease used to be endemic of usually warm-weather areas, however, since adoptions of dogs started from one place to another, cities which used to be Leishmania-free are now a common pace to find it.

How does it spread?

It all starts when a female Phlebotomus fly bites a positive patient. The parasite eggs get inside the fly’s belly and once they are mature (3 up to 5 days), go into another individual by the same process of biting it. While they are still immature, if another individual gets bitten, it will not get the disease. Because of the Phlebotomus‘s ability to move to different places, the contagion can happen many days later and many kms away.

So yes, you can have a Leishmaniasis sero-positive dog living along with many others who will never get the disease, providing you take measures.

What can it do to a dog?

Yes, it CAN kill a dog. In years or weeks, that depends on many factors. You can play a role on it, usually.

The pooch may still show many symptoms, or not, but can live a relatively long and “good” life if enough care is provided. There are several drugs like immune boosts and some other type like the one used in gout treatments for people that can prolongue the dog’s life a great deal. If the dog has an advanced visceral version, it’s possible that many other medicines will be required to protect the liver and kidneys. Of course your veterinary will indicate the best course of action, but it’s not a bad idea to be informed.

How to prevent it?

You can do many things to defeat this enemy. The more of them you do, the best change your dog has to be a Leishmania-free baby:

VACCINE: The latest vaccine is one that has gained a bit more friends than the bit hated former one. Bear in mind, although it’s called “vaccine”, it doesn’t actually prompts the individual to produce antibodies, which is what normally a vaccine does. It’s more like a huge boost to your dog’s immune system to the disease. This is why some people are still reluctant to believe in it.

GOOD FOOD AND LIVING CONDITIONS: The same with us, if you take care of what you eat, you exercise and live a healthy life, you are most likely to overcome a disease. Some dogs are sero-positive and will never show any symptoms nor will be affected because their immune system is properly working. On a separate note and as a curiosity, there is a Spanish hunting breed, the Podenco, which due to who-knows-for-how-long exposure, have developed an immune system that protects their individuals from the horrors of this awful parasite. Nature is marvellous…

COLLARS AND SPOT-ON’s: Collars (good ones) are usually more effective repelling the fly than spot-on’s, but there’s always better to be at the excess extreme in this case than at the other one. Remember, though, that these things will repel but will not kill the fly and a very stubborn individual carrying the disease will be enough to put your furry friend in danger.

CITRONELLA and other repellents: Any natural repellent should be a winner here. Use as many as you can.

ANY MEASURES TO KEEP THE ENEMY AWAY: keep your dog indoors as much as possible, mind your garden and any place where plants and water are present, keep things as clean and neat as you can.

                          Amazing Pic by Howie R.

Amazing Pic by Howie R.

Usual misconceptions and why does it spread so easily

The most frequent one is to believe that this is a seasonal problem. Both at the clinic and at the petshop, I always see people getting collars and spot-on’s only in summertime.

Another one is to think that a sero-positive individual will infect a healthy one only by living with them.

A third one is to believe that because this disease used to be endemic of specific places, will not be present in others.

And last, but not least, lack of information and sometimes of opportunity to get good info or to speak to a good professional, will make owners to neglect this risk. Please, it’s serious. And, unfortunately, due to globalization, is way more common than what you think.


Thanks for taking the time to read this and loving your dog.





(1) You can read the entire article about the study they made in South America in this link (Dantas-Torres, F. Canine leishmaniosis in South America. Parasites Vectors2, S1 (2009). https://doi.org/10.1186/1756-3305-2-S1-S1) It’s a good one, although their opinion about infected dogs is to eliminate them since they are centering on protecting people in under-developed places where human beings are still learning how to get through.


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