The silent Spanish dog killer

Image: Pixabay

Pets are extremely cute and with the number of animals in households growing exponentially every year, there is no doubt that people love their furry companions. According to figures given in 2019 from the Spanish Network for the Identification of Pets (REIAC), there were 13 million registered pets in Spain of which 93% were dogs, and the numbers will only have grown with the boom of pet ownership over the course of the pandemic. But there is a silent Spanish dog killer that is targeting our beloved four-legged friends and not enough people are aware of it. 

Canine Leishmaniasis (or Leishmaniosis) is a vector-borne disease caused by a parasite and it is transmitted by the bite of female phlebotomine sandflies. Transmission occurs in countries where sandflies are endemic, of which Spain is included, and Leishmania is rife across southern Europe with as many as 60% of dogs carrying the parasite that causes the illness. Infection with Leishmaniasis involves the initial infection from the sandfly, followed by an immune response from the dog. The dog’s immune response can contain the infection and prevent active disease for months to years. However, if the dog comes under stress or becomes ill with a different ailment, its suppressed immune system may no longer be able to cope. 

This is when the symptoms of Leishmaniasis begin to appear. They often include skin problems, lesions and hair loss (cutaneous), excessive nail growth, lameness or joint inflammation, weight loss, reduced appetite, red eyes, and lethargy. Some dogs have symptoms that affect their insides more (visceral), and they can present with nose bleeds, lumps under the skin, shaking episodes and muscle wastage, as well as vomiting and diarrhoea.  


As a lot of these symptoms can be attributed to other causes, it is now recommended to have your dog’s blood tested for the presence of the Leishmania parasite on an annual basis in mid-late October, just after the high sandfly season, or if not possible, at the very beginning of symptom onset. If left untreated, the disease can slowly attack the internal organs, and eventually cause renal or other organ failures, turning Leishmaniasis into the silent Spanish dog killer. 

The most accurate tests are those of a quantitative serological type, known as IFAT and ELISA tests. Most vets will have the quick qualitative version of this, known as a rapid blood test to see if medium to high levels of the parasite are recognisable in the bloodstream. Once the infection has been detected your vet will be able to prescribe the most suitable course of treatment to your dog. If caught early and treated correctly, the prognosis for the disease can be good. 

There are two different ways to treat clinical Leishmaniasis, the silent Spanish dog killer. One is a liquid called Milteforan, administered orally mixed with food as not to damage the dog’s throat, for a minimum of 28 days. The other is a substance named Glucantime which is injected subcutaneously twice a day, for a minimum course of 21 days. Both of these medicines are taken with a longer course of a tablet called Allopurinol, a treatment that stops the parasite from multiplying and keeps levels a manageable number. 


Leishmaniasis is currently known as a treatable but not curable infection. Once a dog has become infected, the parasite usually remains in the blood for life. This does not mean that the dog will be symptomatic for life, however. Using the correct treatments at the correct times can keep the infection manageable and many dogs go on to lead long happy lives. 

As the vector for this infection is the sandfly bite, it is imperative to protect your dogs year-round from the insects. Seresto and Scalibor collars are useful to dog owners as they offer many months of protection from one collar, and cover the dogs for fleas, ticks and mosquitos as well. If possible, bring your dogs inside at night as this can be a time they are more likely to be bitten. There is a vaccine available against Leishmania for dogs over six months who have a negative serology test, so please check with your vet if this is a possibility. 

As with all advice, please check with your veterinary practitioner for individual advice for your pets. Other excellent resources are www.Leishvet.org and www.stopleishmania.org.



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Written by

Claire Gordon

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