Leishmaniasis in Dogs


There is hardly any infectious disease in dogs that is more dangerous than leishmaniasis. This disease is caused by small, single-celled parasites in the blood, so-called Leishmania pathogens. These parasites are mainly transmitted via mosquito bites, most often through the sand or butterfly mosquito. When stitched into the dog’s body, the parasitic carriers enter the blood of the pet and spread.

Alternatively, the transmission of leishmaniasis in dogs can be via blood transfusions, during  pregnancy  or through contact with other  infected animals. However, the latter only usually occurs if there is an open injuries on the animals body and come into direct contact with blood, pus or other bodily fluids in which leishmaniasis pathogens are present.

Dog looking sad and ill

As soon as a transmission is made, the leishmania parasites become nested in the dog’s tissue cells. Slowly but steadily, the leishmaniasis pathogens decompose various areas of the lymph nodes, bone marrow and internal organs. The tricky thing is that when the dog has been infected with leishmaniasis, the first symptoms often develop after a few months, sometimes even after a few years. Therefore, it is important to avoid leishmaniasis in dogs in advance and detect signs of the disease early.

Once the dog has contracted leishmaniasis, it remains in the body of the animal until death. Only the symptoms can be treated.

How to Spot Leishmaniasis – Symptoms Explained

Leishmaniasis is an insidious infectious disease that in almost all cases leads to the death of the dog. Unfortunately, the symptoms vary and are complex. This makes the diagnosis hard and thus the treatment more difficult. After the initial infection, it can take several months, or even years for the disease to break out.

In most cases, leishmaniasis begins with the constant exhaustion  and fatigue of the dog. This causes the dog to sleep more and reduces the animals activity levels. The other physical effects leishmaniasis has on the dog depends on which organs are attacked by the pathogens. In most cases, various  inflammations of the skin  (so-called dermatitis) appear at the beginning of the disease, and lymph nodes are strongly swollen and enlarged.

In most cases, the first signs of leishmaniasis see small nodules appear directly at the puncture site which was caused  by the bite. However, since these are comparatively small and inconspicuous, most dog owners tend not to notice these symptoms during the early stages. Throughout the course of the disease, these nodules are often spread throughout the body creating skin-like bubbles filled with fluid. Sensitive parts of the body are particularly susceptible to this, such as the edges of the ears, the nose of the dog or the eye area.

In addition, there are a number of other symptoms that can occur with leishmaniasis in the dog. These include:

  • Decreased appetite and associated loss of weight
  • Digestive problems such as nausea or diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Strong claw growth, in parallel often a claw bed inflammation
  • Failure of the coat
  • Changes in skin and/or fur
  • Various diseases of the eyes
  • Bleeding from the nose, blood in the feces

Other symptoms from the disease mainly depend on which organs are affected.

Is it Really Leishmaniasis? Ways to Diagnose the Disease

The unclear picture of the various symptoms means that leishmaniasis is not always immediately detected. It is often assumed that the organs are not functioning correctly, but in most cases it is not immediately attributed to the pathogen. Since the first symptoms often only form after a long time after the actual infection, the risk of leishmaniasis is not the initial thought for many dog owners.

Another problem in the diagnosis process of leishmaniasis is the large amount of various pathogen strains that may be responsible for the disease. Therefore, leishmaniasis is not recognizable from external symptoms. A visit to the veterinarian, where  blood and tissue of the dog is taken and  examined, gives a more accurate diagnosis. If an infection has occurred, the pathogen can be detected in the tissue with the red and white blood cells showing first changes. In the further course of the disease, antibodies are also present in the blood. THese antibodies are formed by the body to react against the pathogens.

Dog asleep and looking ill

Recommended Trip to the Vets

The earlier leishmaniasis is detected in the dog, the sooner it is possible to start the Treatment. There is no cure for leishmaniasis, however treatment can significantly increase the life expectancy of the dog. As soon as you notice a change in your pet with them being constantly exhausted and tired, it is advisable to go to the vet.

If another symptom is added, such as diarrhea, skin changes, fever or weight loss, action should be taken much more quickly. This is especially important if your four-legged friend was taken on holiday with warm temperatures or may have had contact with other infected animals.

How to Treat Leishmaniasis in Dogs

Unfortunately, it is not yet possible to fully treat leishmaniasis in dogs. Once the pathogens have entered the animal’s body, they remain in the cells of the tissue until the dog dies. However, the symptoms can be treated. This means the life expectancy of the animal increases and quality of life improves too.

Duration of Therapy

Leishmaniasis therapy usually lasts several months. During this time, the dog receives numerous medications that help to reduce the  pathogens to a minimum. Medication can also significantly reduce their activity. The direct consequences of the disease, which have already arisen during the first few months, are also treated during this part of the therapy. If there is a significant improvement in the state of health, the therapy can be stopped after a few months.

Nevertheless, it is important to have an extensive blood count of the dog at regular intervals. This will detect any further leishmaniasis breakouts in the animal.

Supporting the Immune System

In the fight against leishmaniasis, it may not only be useful to treat the symptoms of the disease with medication. Instead another approach may be taken to strengthen the dog’s immune system. A healthy diet, regular vet checks and sufficient vitamins and minerals are important in supporting the dog’s body in the fight against leishmaniasis.

It is also important that the dog’s immune system can concentrate on the disease. Therefore, dry food should be limited as much as possible and high-quality wet food should be fed instead.

Life Expectancy

Unfortunately, the treatment of leishmaniasis is extensive and therefore also very expensive. How beneficial the treatment is depends on the animal and the current state of the disease.  If still in the initial stages, good results can be achieved with the right treatment. The right treatment plan will significantly increase the life expectancy of your four-legged friend. However, if leishmaniasis in dog is already advanced, treatment can no longer achieve great success. If left untreated, a leishmaniasis disease in the dog will spread at a quick rate. Often infected animals live 1-2 years after the onset of the disease. After this time, the infected dogs usually die from organ failure, especially kidneys.

Preventing Leishmaniasis

In the past, it was relatively easy to avoid leishmaniasis in dogs. The recommended rule was no holidays to regions where sand and butterfly mosquitoes were common. Unfortunately, climate change has meant that sand and butterfly mosquitoes are now also present in Europe. Especially in the Mediterranean, including Spain, Italy, Greece, Croatia, and southern France.

The sand mosquitos are very adaptable and expand their habitat into very atypical areas. Due to this, there have been some cases of Leishmaniasis in cooler places. However, in order to minimise the risk, it is still advisable to avoid traveling to warmer areas of Europe or areas where mosquitoes are common.

Things to Consider when Staying in Warm Countries

If you can’t avoid the trip, or you’re already living in a risk zone for leishmaniasis carriers, there are a few tips you could try. Protector collars have proven to be very effective. Secreting a smell that is very unpleasant for mosquitoes, ticks and other parasites and thus acts as a deterrent.

Alternatively, the classic spot-on preparations are still available. This method is very popular in the fight against ticks. These are simply placed in the dog’s neck and picked up by the animals blood flow. This ensures that insects and parasites are initially repelled by the unpleasant smell. If there should still be a bite, it quickly releases again as the dog’s blood becomes inedible for the parasites.  This also significantly reduces the risk of infection with leishmaniasis.

Anti-mosquito sprays are also available for dogs to protect them from leishmaniasis. It is important to treat the sensitive skin regions. FOr example, the eye area, the skin around the nose and in very young or short-haired dogs also the abdomen and genitals. But beware, many anti-mosquito sprays for humans have a very irritating effect on the dog’s skin. Therefore, special products for your four-legged friends can be found here.

Another important trick in dealing with mosquitoes that may transmit leishmaniasis is to close or secure windows. In particular, those who live in the affected regions should refrain from leaving windows open in the evening. Sand and butterfly mosquitoes are considered primarily nocturnal. Therefore, if lights are left on in your house, windows should either remain locked or secured at night with a mosquito net.

dog running in a hot country

Is there a Vaccine Against Leishmaniasis?

CaniLeish®, the vaccine against leishmaniasis, consists of proteins taken directly from the parasites. It also includes an additive that stimulates the immune system to form antibodies against the proteins of the leishmaniasis parasite. This vaccine does not prevent the actual disease, but 90% of the outbreak and subsequent death are absent.

Before using the vaccine, it is important to completely rule out that the dog is already infected with leishmaniasis parasites. Therefore, a detailed check of the blood and tissue should be carried out before the first vaccination. The leishmaniasis vaccine for dogs is initially administered for 3x every 3 weeks for basic immunization. Afterwards, it is sufficient to refresh the Leishmaniasis vaccination every year.

The side effects of leishmaniasis vaccination correspond approximately to the clinical picture of other vaccinations. For example, redness and swelling around the injection site. However, there is a chance of a short-term fever or increased fatigue. These symptoms should have completely subsided after a few days.

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