Leishmaniasis Fact Sheet
Information for pet owners on the infectious disease Leishmaniasis.
What is Leishmania?
Leishmania is a parasite which causes a disease called Leishmaniasis, Leishmaniasis is a severe disease that can affect dogs and other mammals including humans. The parasite is transmitted to dogs via an insect (sandfly) that is not present in the UK. However, it is present in many countries in Southern and Eastern Europe, and dogs that travel or have lived in these areas are at risk of becoming infected.
What are the symptoms of the disease?
Some dogs have no symptoms for months or years after becoming infected. When they become ill with the disease, they often develop skin lesions and become unwell (they may be depressed, lose weight, drink excessively, etc). Some dogs develop kidney failure. It is possible for infected dogs to become unwell without having any skin lesions.
Can cats develop Leishmaniasis?
Yes, but it is very rare.
If my dog has never been abroad, could he become infected?
Although Leishmaniasis has been diagnosed in non-travelled dogs in the UK, it is extremely rare. We assume that these dogs get infected through other less effective routes (e.g. sexual transmission, blood transfusions or bites from infected dogs – the latter is not proven). Fleas and ticks do not appear to be able to transmit the disease.
How will my vet diagnose Leishmaniasis?
It depends on the presenting signs but it is likely to be through a combination of blood tests and sampling (e.g. samples from the skin, lymph nodes or internal organs).
What is the treatment?
Treatment can vary depending on the clinical presentation. For example, some dogs are infected but asymptomatic and do not always require treatment. However, most dogs will require medication and this is likely to be a combination of two drugs (allopurinol and miltefosine or allopurinol and meglumine antimoniate). Allopurinol in most cases will be continued for a few months until the signs have resolved and blood tests have all returned to normal. Unfortunately, treatment is not curative and the dog will remain persistently infected so relapses are common after stopping medication.
So if they are not cured, should they stay on treatment for life?
No, you need to follow your vet’s advice on this but we do not treat for life as this could induce treatment resistance. They are carefully monitored during and after treatment and the medication re-started when there are early signs of relapse. This may not happen for months or years.
Will my dog die of the disease?
Leishmaniasis is a very serious disease and best avoided at all cost. However, it can be effectively controlled if it is well monitored. Many dogs with the disease live normal, happy lives.
How can I prevent my dog from becoming infected?
Do not take your dog to areas where Leishmania is present! This is the best advice to protect your dog against infection.
However, if this is not possible there are good products to repel sandflies and prevent transmission of the parasite (spot on treatments and collars). Speak to your vet for advice on what would be the best product for your pet. They must be applied correctly and you must follow the instructions on the frequency of application. Avoiding exposure to sandflies (the insects that transmit Leishmania) is the most effective way to prevent infection. Sandflies are more active at dusk – so avoid taking your dog out at this time and keep your dog indoors at night.
Can I vaccinate my dog against Leishmania?
Yes, there are vaccines against this parasite which are licensed to be used in the UK. They reduce the likelihood of your dog developing symptoms if he becomes infected but do not prevent infection itself. The only way to prevent infection is to avoid contact with the sandfly.
We recommend vaccination in dogs that travel to affected areas for long periods of time but they must always be used in combination with a sandfly repellent.
I have heard that people can develop Leishmaniasis and it is a very serious disease in people too. Could I become infected from my dog?
No, you cannot get the disease directly from your dog in the UK as a sandfly is required for transmission of the disease. In addition, once dogs are receiving adequate treatment, they are unlikely to spread the disease even in the presence of the sandfly so the risk is very low.
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