Canine Leishmaniasis

What is Leishmaniasis?

There are two separate disesases, Human Leishmaniasis and Canine Leishmaniasis.  Canine Leishmaniasis is mostly found in the Mediterranean area.  Similar to Malaria it is spread by an insect vector.  The vector for Canine Leishmaniasis is a sandfly which only lives in warm, dry climates.  The sandfly bites a dog infected with Leishmaniasis and spreads it to other dogs when it bites them.  In extremely rare cases Canine Leishmaniasis can be spread to immuno-suppressed humans via the sandfly vector.  The sandfly does not live on the Atlantic coast of Spain where many of the setters we rescue come from or in the UK.

Leishmaniasis is a very serious disease for dogs if left untreated but if caught early and the correct treatment is given they go into remission and have a normal quality of life and life expectancy.

Leishmaniasis Tests

We test all dogs for Leishmaniasis before they travel to the UK.  Although many of the dogs (including most of the setters) we rehome are from the Atlantic coast of Spain where Leishmaniasis isn’t endemic we still test them in case their hunter owners have taken them to the south of Spain to hunt.  In practice it is extremely rare for any of these dogs to have Leish.

Positive Tests

If dogs do have a positive result, the test shows an antibody reading which gives an indication of how advanced the disease is.  If they test positive we also do full blood tests to determine if their internal organs are affected and give them treatment to control the disease.  Once the disease is controlled they can travel to the UK. When in the UK they initially need  6-monthly Leishmaniasis antibody tests to ensure that the disease has not become active again.  After a period of time the test interval can drop down to annually.  In practice none of the dogs we have rehomed to the UK following Leishmaniasis treatment have gone on to have another outbreak, all are in remission (and this is the typical pattern for these dogs once rehomed in the UK).

Low Positive Tests

Sometimes they test low positive to Leishmaniasis. This means that they have been exposed to the disease but don’t have the active version (and don’t have any symptoms). They don’t normally need treatment although some vets choose to give them preventative treatment or treatment to boost their immune systems.  Dogs in this category also need 6-monthly and then annual tests to ensure they don’t develop the active version of the disease.

Negative Tests

negative result indicates that they don’t have antibodies for Leishmaniasis.  However it is possible for a dog to test negative but to be in the incubation period for the disease.  The incubation period can last for many years so it is possible for a dog from Spain to develop Leishmaniasis up to several years after being adopted.  For this reason it is really important for adopters of our dogs to be familiar with Leishmaniasis symptoms.

We recommend that dogs adopted from Leish endemic areas (we will tell you where your dog is from during the interview) are tested after they arrive in the UK at the following intervals – 6 weeks, 7 months, 13 months and then annually.

Symptoms of Canine Leishmaniasis

These can include:

  • Weight loss
  • Running a temperature
  • Abnormal nails (unusually thick or brittle)
  • Anaemia
  • Arthritis
  • Renal failure
  • Apathy, weakness
  • Progressive muscular atrophy
  • Cutaneous ulcers
  • Wounds which don’t heal
  • Dry skin
  • Dandruff
  • Hair loss
  • Hair loss round the eyes
  • Bleeding from the nose
  • Swollen linfatic glands, liver, spleen
  • Limps
  • Lesions in the eyes

Suspected Leish-positive dogs and warning about UK vets

Of course these symptoms don’t necessarily indicate Leish, they can be caused by other things but if in doubt it’s best to do a Leishmaniasis antibody blood test to rule it out.  

We also strongly recommend that you make contact with us so that we can support you.  UK vets understandably have limited or no experience and knowledge of Leishmaniasis since it isn’t endemic in the UK.  Very sadly this has caused some very serious problems including 

  • vets persuading adopters to euthanize dogs which would have recovered with treatment
  • doing expensive and unnecessary tests incurring unnecessarily high bills for adopters
  • scaring adopters by telling them that Canine Leishmaniasisis can be spread to other dogs and to humans without mentioning the need for the sandfly vector and without mentioning that it is only immuno-suppressed humans* who are susceptible to contracting the disease. 

*even immuno-suppressed humans are very unlikely to catch it.  In Leish-endemic areas there are millions of immuno-suppressed humans who must be bitten by sandflies carrying the disease but there are very very few reported cases of infected humans.


If you plan on getting insurance to cover any future medical expenses, it’s worth checking the fine print of the policy to make sure leish is covered if it develops in the future. Tesco, Bought by Many, More Than, Pet Plan and Marks and Spencers currently do not exclude leishmaniasis whilst Animal Friends do. This is not a complete list and it is worth checking the policy first to make sure there hasn’t been any updates.

SeBPRA and Leishmaniasis

We have rehomed approximately 10 dogs who have been treated for Leishmaniasis or tested low positive to the disease in Spain. Not one of these dogs has gone on to develop the active version of the disease in the UK.  

We have rehomed three dogs who had tested negative to Leish but went on to develop the disease once in the UK.  The first one was Itti who suddenly started bleeding from her nose.  The second one was Atomo who had a variety of symptoms including increased urination and dark urine, wounds which didn’t heal, hair loss, painful joints and apathy. Atomo seemed really ill, his adopters were really concerned that he wasn’t going to make it but thankfully his blood tests showed that the disease had been caught quickly and the prognosis was good.  Two months into his treatment he is now fit and well and asymptomatic.

How SeBPRA supports adopters

We provide full support for dogs with Canine Leishmaniasis.  With both dogs (see above) who have developed the disease since arriving in the UK we work with a very experienced Spanish vet..  A Leish titer test and a full blood test are sent to the vet for analysis along with information about symptoms and a treatment plan is developed.  The support is ongoing with tests repeated at intervals and medication dosages reviewed.  Itti is now in remission and is fit and well and Atomo is 2-months into his treatment plan and is fit and well too.

If adopters have any concerns at all that their dogs may have Leish we provide full support.

Penelope Perkins