Leishmaniasis (Kala-azar in humans) is a potentially fatal disease of dogs that can also affect other animals including humans. It is spread between animals by sand flies. Unfortunately domesticated dogs harbour the infection and your dog may catch it especially in countries around the Mediterranean, eg southern France, Italy, Greece, Spain, Portugal, Turkey, and the Middle East.
How is leishmaniasis spread?
Canine Leishmaniasis is caused by a small parasite that lives inside cells. The disease is spread by infected sand flies which pass the parasite from one animal to another when they bite and feed. The disease occurs in warm climates, eg Central and South America, the Middle East and Mediterranean regions. In these areas as many as 4 out of 10 dogs are infected. Dogs travelling into or through these areas can be infected. Sand flies are more common during the warmer months of the year. The sand flies that spread leishmaniasis are most active (and will bite) between evening and dawn. They are small flies and may not be easily seen.
What are the signs of leishmaniasis in dogs?
Most affected dogs have swollen glands (swellings in the armpits, groin, around the throat) although these may not be obvious in long-haired breeds. Dogs may have poor appetite, listlessness, unwillingness to exercise and weight loss.
Skin problems are often seen. These may include loss of hair especially around the head and ears, scaly skin, swellings and ulcers on legs, foot pads and other areas including the mouth and tongue. Ulcers and inflamed areas can appear around the lips, nose, eyes and, especially, the tips of the ears. The nails may become very long and brittle. Other signs may be seen depending on the area of the body affected and include lameness, eye problems, bleeding from the nose, drinking or urinating too much, vomiting and/or diarrhoea. Joints may also be damaged by the disease and this causes lameness, stiff gait and swollen limbs.
How would I know if my dog was infected?
Signs of disease may develop a long time after infection (up to several years) or within a few months of being exposed to an infected sand fly. It all depends on how susceptible your dog is and the number of sand fly bites.
How will a vet know if a dog has leishmaniasis?
As leishmaniasis is becomly increasingly common in the UK, more diagnostic techniques are being developed for vets. However, more than one test may be necessary to confirm if your dog has active infection or has just been exposed to an infected sand fly bite
Can leishmaniasis be treated?
Treatment in dogs is much more difficult than in people and the disease in untreated dogs is commonly fatal. Even with current treatments it is still not possible to completely eliminate the parasite. However, treatment can often dramatically reduce the clinical signs of disease and improve a dog's quality of life.
However, continued treatment may be needed life long in an infected animal to keep the parasite under control. Treatment is not straightforward. There are licensed drugs in continental Europe for the treatment of leishmaniasis It can be expensive and rarely results in a cure. Dogs that look very well can still harbour small numbers of parasites deep in some organs such as the bone marrow. Before treatment your vet will want to check your dog's kidney function, liver function and immune system. The drugs used are very powerful and may produce significant side effects if the disease has already caused kidney or liver damage.
How can I prevent my dog becoming infected?
.If you are taking your dog abroad to a country where leishmaniasis is common then it is important to protect them against biting sand flies. Dogs should be kept in during the evenings (when the flies are most active) and certain insecticides (synthetic pyrethroids) in spot-on and collar formulation with fly repellent activity should be used. None of these products provides 100% protection.
A possible vaccine for leishmaniasis in dogs is being explored but there is no vaccine commercially available in the EU.
Can I catch leishmaniasis from my dog?
Bites from infected sand flies are the major route of transmission of leishmaniasis. Just like dogs, people are usually infected by being bitten by sand flies. If you are visiting an area where leishmaniasis is known to be common it is vital that you apply repellant insecticides on yourself (as well as your dog).
There are no published reports of direct infection from an infected dog to a human.