Leishmaniasis is a disease caused by the bite of a female phlebotomine sandfly. It is believed that 7-8% of Spanish dogs are infected with Leishmaniasis, although the illness is much more prolific in certain areas of the country (Córdoba 25%, Málaga 35%, Barcelona 18%).
The illness manifests in two different forms: visceral (affecting the organs) and cutaneous (affecting the skin). The first noticeable symptoms are usually hair loss (specifically around the eyes, ears, and muzzle) and weight loss. Some other common symptoms include excessive nail growth and open sores on the dog's body. It can also lead to muscular atrophy, lethargy, lameness or joint inflammation, epistasis (nose bleeds), nose-digital hyperkeratosis (thick, hard, dry skin on the nose and pads of the paws), lesions on the eyelids and eyes. Renal failure is a complication of the disease once it progresses.
The good news? The disease is preventable. By reducing the risk of a bite from the sandfly, we greatly reduce our dog's risk of being infected. Scalibor and Seresto collars act as a deterrent against the sandfly as well as against fleas and ticks.
One of my clients, the lovely Poppy, was infected with Leishmaniasis and Rickettsia before she was adopted. Her mum, Clare, has written a blog about their experience of the illnesses in the hope that it will encourage other owners to realise the importance of prevention. However, if you're considering adopting a leish-positive dog, please don't let this turn you off. The illness can be controlled and infected dogs can live long, happy and normal lives. Poppy, unfortunately, has an extreme case of the two illnesses, whereas many dogs never show any symptoms.
"Hi, I am Poppy the Pointer!
My mum adopted me from a shelter in Spain in July 2018 and now I have a really great life.
This blog is for all my dog friends and their dog parents as I want to tell you about a couple of health problems that I have so that you can avoid getting them yourselves.
The first is Leishmaniasis and the second is Rickettsia.
When mum adopted me, I wasn’t very well at all. I had a high level of Leishmaniasis, which would have been caused by an infected sandfly biting me. Mum is not sure how long before she adopted me that I was bitten, but because the level was so high, it seems that I hadn’t been treated quickly enough, or at all, by my previous owner. The shelter were trying their best to treat me, but I needed a stronger treatment. However, I am very pleased to say that now the Leishmaniasis is controlled and I take one tablet a day for it, which should hopefully keep it under control for the rest of my life. In the beginning, I had to go to the vets rather a lot to help me feel better, but I do love my vet, he gives me treats and kisses! I needed a course of very nasty injections for the Leishmaniasis. I couldn’t tolerate the whole course of injections as they made me very sick. But fortunately, just a few injections spread over a period of a few weeks, in my case made a big difference. I have blood tests to check the level of Leishmaniasis to make sure it is still at a low level, otherwise, I may have to repeat those nasty injections again. I was very lucky that I didn’t suffer the really serious side effects that I heard the vet telling mum about. By what I can tell those injections are a harsh treatment, but they did the trick for me.
Leishmaniasis is something I will never be totally rid of, it can become active again at any time, but so far I am fine. Sometimes I listen to other dog parents chatting to my mum and their reaction is often “Oh Leishmaniasis that’s nothing, it’s not a problem these days, it is really easy to cure now”. But unfortunately, that is not true, it can’t be “cured”, it is only ever “controlled”. So, it is really important not to be complacent and I do wish that my previous owner had given me the appropriate protection to prevent the sandfly from biting and infecting me and also that I had not been made to sleep outside. Now, just because I already have Leishmaniasis it doesn’t mean that I can’t be re-infected. If I were to be bitten by another sandfly again and re-infected that would be serious for me. So, I wear a special collar all the time which mum buys from the vet, and of course, I sleep inside (what absolute heaven, a comfy bed next to hers!).
My advice to all my dog friends is to make sure that their parents always protect them because if Leishmaniasis does take hold it’s not pleasant. So, for the sake of us dogs wearing a special protective collar and having an indoor sleeping area, why take the risk? Please get your parents to ask your local vet if your area is a risk area for the sandfly and if it is, they will advise about protection for you. I have heard there are also vaccinations now, so it is worth giving your parents a big wet “nose nudge” in the direction of the vet, to ask the questions. By the way, you don’t have to live by the beach to be at risk from sandfly bites. It is likely I got mine while out in the Spanish campo/countryside. Mum soon found out after adopting me that I was very used to hunting birds, so my previous life was definitely as a hunting dog in rough terrain. I am pleased to say that I much prefer “hunting” bits of cheese and biscuits, which are now regularly placed around the house to keep my nose occupied!
As mentioned, I also have Rickettsia which is likely to have been caused by tick bites. I suppose it is logical to presume that if my previous owner didn’t protect me from the sandflies, then they wouldn’t have protected me from fleas and ticks either. So not only did I get bitten and infected by sandflies, but I also got bitten and infected by ticks. Rickettsia, in theory, is treatable by a long course of antibiotics, that is if it is treated early enough. But in my case, the parasite was left untreated for too long before my mum adopted me and the antibiotics don’t seem to be able to get rid of it permanently. From time to time I get a fever and other symptoms, so then I have another course of antibiotics. The Rickettsia and Leishmaniasis cause me anaemia and the Rickettsia also attacks my blood platelets (essential for clotting). My own body is also having an autoimmune response to all this, so it’s all quite complicated…I don’t attempt to understand it, I just leave it to mum and the vet to sort me out. I have daily cortisone injections and other bits and pieces…usually hidden in my food, but mum thinks I don’t notice them! The posh name for the blood problem is Thrombocytopenia. However, this constant blood problem does have one advantage…mum cooks me fresh liver most days!
As with the Leishmaniasis, the Rickettsia could also likely have been avoided if my previous owner had given me the appropriate flea and tick prevention. So once again, I would advise all my dog friends to insist in the strongest terms that their parents protect them regularly from fleas and ticks. Sometimes I hear dog parents weighing up the cost and whether it is worth it, but take it from me, I know it is definitely worth it…even if I do get liver every day, I would rather be without all the blood tests and injections.
In spite of all this, I really enjoy life. Most of the time I feel quite well. As I said, I leave all the worrying to mum and the vet and just get on with enjoying every moment of my new life: Instead of hunting birds for my job, I have just started going to visit the residents of a nursing home, I love and they love it. We all get on like a house on fire, they smile and laugh a lot when they see me and I get lots of treats and show off a bit with a few tricks. I have also learnt how to wear a muzzle (thanks to Louise of Doctor Loulittle Dog Training!) to use the Metro in Madrid, so I go everywhere I can with my mum. I even go on holiday and have travelled by car with mum and dad through Europe to places where I have learnt to wag my tail in a different language. I have been on trains, buses, cable cars and I have even been on a train under the sea to go to England, wow, that was fascinating…I didn’t see any fish though! When on holiday, I have needed an occasional trip to a vet in a foreign country. One was very interesting when I met a lovely Swiss vet who had adopted 6 Spanish Galgos from Andalucía…that’s where I am originally from, what a coincidence! I now have comfortable beds galore inside the house to choose from and I think that because I have these health issues, I possibly get extra special spoiling. So, I just love my life now, it is full of excitement and fun and I seem to make everyone smile when they see me…maybe that’s because I am so happy. I send all my dog friends a tail wag and I hope that my story will help protect you in the future.
I think the humans like to say “prevention is better than cure”, in my case “prevention is better than control”.
Lots of tail wags from Poppy the Pointer!"
If you'd like to learn more about Leishmaniasis, you can find more information in English here:
The Facebook group Living with Leish is another fantastic source of information, with English speakers whose research is backed by veterinary support.