How much do you know about Canine Leishmaniasis? I don’t know all the technical stuff, and I am certainly not a vet, but can share what I found out about it. It is commonly known as ‘Leish’, it’s caused by infection with Leishmania parasites which are spread by the bite of phlebotomine sandflies, and it’s the female that does the ‘biting’ as she needs blood to feed her eggs - pretty gruesome. It is found in approximately fifty countries in the world, with a particularly high prevalence in the Mediterranean region (including Portugal), and in regions of South America.

Leish is treatable but requires a healthy immune system that can respond to infection, and because medicines will not totally eliminate the parasite from the body, the medication can only help prevent the risk of relapse if immunosuppression occurs. It is considered a lifelong infection, and repeated treatments and monitoring are likely to be needed to control it, so rapid intervention should ensure a better long term outcome. One of the most serious consequences of leish is kidney failure, but prompt treatment should reduce the likelihood of this happening. It can’t be transmitted from your dog to you, so there is no chance of you catching it from your dog. But it is transmittable from one dog to another through bites or wounds.

What are the signs and symptoms of leish in dogs?

In most symptomatic dogs, the first sign of disease appears about 2-4 months after the initial infection, but you won’t necessarily know when that was until the symptoms show up. Symptoms may include sores on the skin, peeling, ulcers, loss of weight, bald patches, conjunctivitis, blindness, nasal discharge, muscle wastage, inflammation, swelling, and organ failure, including mild heart attacks. If not treated, severe cases of visceral leish typically are fatal. In asymptomatic dogs, the parasite can lay dormant for maybe years, before a catalyst, such as stress or illness, triggers the parasite to multiply and attack the dog and eventually leads to full-blown infection. However, both asymptomatic and symptomatic dogs are capable of infecting sand flies themselves, which I take to mean that a healthy sandfly can bite an infected dog and become infected itself, and therefore spread the infection full circle.

Unfortunately, you can’t prevent your dog from getting leish, but apparently there is a vaccine available for dogs that reduces the risk of your dog getting it. However, the best way to prevent your dog from getting infected is to avoid regions of the world where it is found – not easy if you are already there! There are collars and drops available which will also help reduce the chance of your dog being bitten, and apparently sandflies are more active between dusk and dawn, so this would be a good time to bring your dog inside and out of harms’ way.

But it is treatable, and if caught early enough, an infected dog that is treated will heal and live a fairly normal life.

We adopted a dog with leish, her blood tests were clear but had a nasty black sore on her ear that certainly wasn’t healing up, and in fact was getting bigger. A swab taken by our vet confirmed she had cutaneous leish. Our hearts sank at the thought, but she is on meds now for life, and her outlook is promising if monitored and if it progresses no further. Keeping her well fed, happy, stress free and with regular checkups, she has every chance of living life to the full. With careful treatment, the sore on her ear stopped spreading and has healed up, but her ear tip looks like someone has been at it with a hole-punch! You wouldn’t know there was anything wrong with her, she barks and runs around, play-fights and eats like a horse.

What should you do if you suspect your dog has leishmaniasis?

Don’t give up! My advice would be to contact your veterinarian and take their advice for diagnosis and treatment.