Leishmaniasis: A Growing Risk For Dogs

leishmaniasis in dogs

Dogs get some mysterious diseases.

And this is one you might not have heard of … especially if you’re in North America. 

But it’s a good thing to know about. Especially because it’s a severe, chronic disease that humans can get as well.  (Though your dog can’t give it to you).

I’m talking about canine leishmaniasis. It’s very common in many other parts of the world. And it’s starting to appear in North America.

In 1999, there was an outbreak of canine leishmaniasis at a Foxhound kennel in New York. Since then, there have been several other outbreaks in Foxhound kennels. 

The CDC believes the disease is under-reported in North America.

So … you need to be prepared in case this disease spreads more broadly.

I’ve dealt with quite a few cases in my UK practice. So I wanted to explain what it is, what to look out for, and how you can manage it naturally. 

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What Is Canine Leishmaniasis?

Canine Leishmaniasis is an infection caused by a single cell organism (protozoan parasite). This parasite is called Leishmania.

There are more than 20 species of Leishmania parasites around the world. The most common source of infection is L. infantum, called L. chagasi in some countries. 

It lives in host bodies and it’s spread by female sandflies. 

Dogs are the primary reservoir hosts for this infection.

The main form of the disease is cutaneous leishmaniasis, which causes skin lesions.

There’s also visceral or viscerocutaneous leishmaniasis. This affects internal organs like the spleen, liver or bone marrow.

Canine leishmaniasis is widespread around the world. It’s in more than 70 countries. But It’s most common in …

  • Mediterranean countries in Europe (Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Croatia, Italy, Malta, France, Spain, Portugal)
  • Latin America
  •  Middle East
  • Southern Asia

A couple of factors are causing the spread of leishmaniasis to other countries. 

  • More dogs traveling from affected countries
  • Wider incidence of sandflies due to climate change

So … how do dogs get infected?

How Dogs Get Leishmaniasis

The Leishmania infantum parasite can be transmitted to dogs in four ways:

1. Classic Transmission

  • The female sandfly becomes infected by drinking blood from an infected dog. 
  • The organism grows and develops inside the sandfly.
  • The sand-fly bites a new dog and injects it with the parasite. 
  • The infected dog’s white blood cells attack and try to kill the parasite ..  but it has an evasive mechanism to ensure survival. 
  • The parasite grows and gets out of white blood cells spreading further within the dog’s body.

2. Direct Dog-To-Dog Transmission

 Dogs can pass on the disease to others, through bites or wounds.

3. Blood Transmission

The disease can spread in blood or or blood products. This happens via transfusions from blood donors who are carriers of infection.

4. Venereal Transmission

 Venereal transmission occurs through semen, when infected dogs are used for breeding.

Who’s At Risk

Dogs are at risk to get the disease anywhere there are sandflies. Times of the year vary in different countries. 

Sandflies are most abundant in …

  • Gardens
  • Parklands
  • Woodlands
  • Around houses in rural areas.

The risk of direct dog-to-dog transmission is negligible and very rare.

Leishmania infantum can cause infection in people and cats. But direct dog-to-human and dog-to-cat transmissions have never been reported. 

Signs Of Leishmaniasis In Dogs

Symptoms in different dogs vary depending on their immune system response. 

Some dogs don’t have any symptoms. But they can harbor … and silently spread the parasite for years. 

Other dogs develop signs of active disease.Symptoms Of Leishmaniasis

Symptoms Of Leishmaniasis
  • Loss of body weight
  • Changes in appetite
  • Lethargy
  • Swollen lymph nodes
  • Fever
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Increased thirst 
  • Increased urinating
  • Pale gums and eye lids
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Exfoliative dermatitis (peeling of skin)
  • Hair loss
  • Hyperkeratosis of nose (thickening of skin)
  • Wounds on muzzle, in between toes and genital area
  • Lameness
  • Neurological disorders

Diagnosing Leishmaniasis

Your vet will do a physical exam of your dog.  She’ll also do bloodwork … including chemistry panel, complete blood count, and urinalysis.

Your vet will want to rule out other possible causes for these symptoms. These could be lupus, cancer or distemper. 

Other diagnostic tools include: 

  • Tissue samples from skin, spleen, bone marrow, or lymph nodes. These will be cultured in a laboratory.
  • Fluid aspirates.
  • Skin biopsy.

Dogs with leishmaniasis often have high levels of protein and gammaglobulin. They may also have high liver enzymes.

If your dog has these signs, your veterinarian will also want to rule out tick fever or lupus. 

Once a dog gets infected with leishmaniasis there is no cure.

BUT … depending on the stage of the disease and your dog’s symptoms …

… the right supplementation and changes in diet can help your dog achieve and maintain good quality of life. 

Conventional Drugs For Leishmaniasis

Conventional drugs used to treat leishmaniasis have many side effects. Or they just don’t work for some dogs.

These drugs are:

  • Meglumine antimoniate. It’s toxic to the kidneys and causes pain and inflammation at the injection site. This drug isn’t available in North America. 
  • Miltefosine. It’s an anti-parasitic drug that causes vomiting and diarrhea. It’s also caused birth defects. So don’t use it in pregnant dogs. 
  • Allopurinol. This is a drug used to treat gout. It affects the kidneys and triggers xanthine urolithiasis (bladder stones).
  • Domperidone. It’s an immunostimulatory drug sold in the UK. It’s potentially toxic to the heart.

Instead of these potentially ineffective and harmful drugs …

… consider these natural approaches for your dog’s leishmaniasis. 

Natural Solutions For Leishmaniasis

Here’s my recommendation for the best natural approach. This will help manage the infection and slow down progression of the disease.

The goal is to stimulate the immune system … by feeding a fresh raw food diet. Eliminate all processed foods. I also recommend supplementation to support your dog in controlling the disease. 

Diet For Leishmaniasis

Dogs diagnosed with leishmaniasis should eat a low purine diet. 

This is especially important for dogs treated with Meglumine antimonite and Allopurinol. These may be given on their own or in combination with other drugs.

Low Purine Diet

Purines are natural substances found in plant and animal cells. When they’re oxidized, they cause uric acid to form in the blood. 

Foods containing purines are an important part of a healthy diet for dogs.

But for dogs with leishmaniasis … high purine foods trigger formation of kidney and bladder stones.

These stones are very unpleasant and painful for your dog. And they can lead to infections and further complications.

Note: Low purine diets are also important for Dalmatian dogs. Dalmatians have a genetic abnormality. It stops them eliminating waste or excess protein from their bodies. Without a low purine diet, Dalmatians can get kidney or bladder stones. These can block urination and cause severe pain … or even death, in extreme cases.Low And Medium Purine FoodsHigh Purine Foods

Low And Medium Purine Foods

Feed these foods, which  have low and medium purine content:

  • Green leafy vegetables (except spinach)
  • Eggs
  • Dairy products (plain yogurt, kefir, low fat cottage cheese)
  • Nuts (excluding macadamia as it may be toxic for your dog)
  • Muscle meats from chicken, turkey, lamb, pork and beef
  • Oats and oatmeal
  • Fruits

Tripe can be fed in moderation – once per week. It’s medium to high in purines. But tripe also has many benefits. It provides enzymes and bacteria that help with digestion and improve metabolism.

High Purine Foods

Avoid these foods, which have high levels of purine:

Avoid these foods, which have high levels of purine: 

  • Organs/offal (brain, heart, liver, kidneys)
  • Game
  • Duck
  • Goose
  • Yeast (including nutritional and brewers yeast)
  • Mackerel
  • Herring
  • Sardines
  • Mussels
  • Scallops
  • Spinach
  • Cauliflower
  • Mushrooms
  • Peas
  • Legumes (such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas)

BARF Diet For Leishmaniasis

Following the BARF model diet is an excellent choice for your leish dog. Here’s a sample recipe for DIY BARF for dogs with leishmaniasis.

  • Chicken muscle meat
  • Chicken necks or wings
  • Raw egg with shell
  • Mixture of seasonal low purine vegetables 
  • MCT oils or nuts

 The ingredient ratio should be …

  • 70% muscle meat 
  • 10% edible bone
  • 10% low purine vegetables
  • 5% nuts or oil
  • 5% low purine fruit

Feed 2-5% of your dog’s bodyweight in raw food per day. Monitor your dog’s weight and adjust the food amount if he loses or gains weight. 

Always supervise your dog when feeding edible bones!

There are some supplements and whole foods that are extremely helpful for your leish dog.

These foods and supplements have immune system stimulating properties. They’re also antioxidant and reduce inflammation.


Melon is packed with natural vitamins, antioxidants and carotenoid pigments. These stimulate the immune system. It has rehydrating properties too.

Amount: Serve as a tasty treat or feed in moderation.

Aloe Vera Juice

It has excellent anti-inflammatory properties. And it stimulates the immune system and fights against cell oxidation.

If you apply gel from fresh aloe leaves externally … it activates synthesis of collagen and promotes skin healing.

You can also give it orally. Dilute aloe vera juice with spring water before giving to your dog. 

Dose: 5-15ml in 1 liter water for small breeds. 15-30ml in 1 liter water for medium and bigger breeds.


This supplement is extracted from pomegranate rind. It’s a powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory agent. It’s rich in natural vitamins. 

Dose:  10mg/kg (or 4.5 mg/lb) body weight.

Black Pepper

This is a natural antioxidant … but give it in very moderate quantities. 

Dose: Mix a maximum of a pinch ground black pepper with food.  

Or … the best way to give black pepper to your dog is to make Golden Paste.

The turmeric in the paste is also anti-inflammatory (see Turmeric below).


It’s antioxidant and reduces inflammation in body. It helps with skin healing. Give a powder or grated fresh root, mixed with food. Or use to prepare a Golden Paste.  


Seaweed is rich in amino acids and minerals. They strengthen the immune system and improve skin healing processes.

The safest form of seaweed is dried as powder or flakes, sprinkled over or mixed with food.  

Dose: General recommendation is 1-2g per 10g of body weight. Always follow manufacturer’s instructions. If the supplement is made for humans, assume it’s for a 150 lb person and adjust for your dog’s weight.

Echinacea Purpurea

This herb enhances the immune system and has anti-inflammatory properties.

Dose: 12 to 25 drops of echinacea tincture, 3 times daily.

Or you can make a tea or used dried herbs. (See Giving Herbs below.)


This fruit is rich in natural vitamins and minerals. It boosts the immune system and improves kidney health.

Amount: Serve as a treat or feed in moderation.

Haematoccus Pluvialis

This is a fresh water algae that’s rich in the powerful antioxidant, astaxanthin.

Dose: If you use an astaxanthin supplement, give your dog 1mg to  1.6mg daily per 20 lbs of bodyweight.

If you buy Haemotoccus pluvialis, follow the manufacturer’s dosing directions. Assume they’re for a 150 lb person and adjust for your dog’s weight.


Use resveratrol extracted from Japanese knotweed. This can significantly reduce  pro- inflammatory factors associated with leishmaniasis.

Dose: Follow the manufacturer’s directions. Assume they’re for a 150 lb person and adjust for your dog’s weight.

Bee Pollen

Bee pollen‘s health benefits are numerous.

It’s super nutrient-dense. It contains antioxidants, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, proteins and fats.

These all help fight infections … by strengthening the body’s abilities to overcome inflammation.

Amount: For 50 lb dog, give 1 tsp per day. Start with 1/3 dose and increase gradually. Serve mixed with food or sprinkle over it. 

Caution: Don’t give honey products to puppies under 1 year old. Raw honey may contain Clostridium botulinum spores that can make puppies sick.

Omega-3 Fats

These are essential for skin health and many body functions. They decrease inflammation and improve function of the immune system.

Great sources of Omega-3 are phytoplankton and flax oil. These are healthier alternatives to fish oil.

Note: Green Lipped Mussel oil is becoming popular as an omega-3 supplement. But don’t use it in this case because it’s high in purines.


Quercetin is a plant flavonoid found in many fruits, vegetables and herbs.

It’s a powerful antioxidant with excellent ant- inflammatory properties. It reduces infection. 

Dose: Follow manufacturer’s directions. Assume dose is for a 150 lb person and adjust for your dog’s weight.


Zinc is a trace mineral. It contributes to healthy skin function and boosts the immune system.

The best source of zinc is in a balanced diet. Chicken, turkey and seeds are all very rich in zinc.

Note: Organ meats and some fish are good sources of zinc. But they have high purine levels and shouldn’t be part of your leish dog’s diet.

Dose: If you use a commercial zinc supplement, follow the manufacturer‘s dosing recommendation. Assume human supplements are for a 150 lb person, and adjust for your dog’s weight. 

Giving Herbs

When using dry herbs to brew a tea, use 1 teaspoon per 1 liter of boiling water. Start with 60 ml of prepared tea per 20 lbs body weight and gradually increase the amount of tea.

If you choose to use dry herbs as sprinkles, start with a small pinch per 20 lbs body weight.

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions when using tinctures or capsules … or consult your herbalist or holistic vet.

Preventing Leishmaniasis In Dogs

The best way to prevent leishmaniasis in dogs is to keep the sandflies away!

Insect Repellents

Avoid commercial or pharmaceutical repellents such as collars and pills. These contain substances that can lead to stomach upsets and serious neurological side effects. 

Try to choose a natural repellent instead.

Use it when sandflies are in season. Apply it before visiting places where these insects may be present. If they’re in your yard or garden, apply before your dog goes outside!

Note: There is a leishmaniasis vaccine available in some parts of the world. But vaccination carries harmful side effects. I recommend avoiding it whenever you can. 


1. If your dog’s already on medication for leishmaniasis …

… please don’t stop any prescribed medication without consulting your veterinarian. 

2. Always introduce a new diet and supplements gradually.  

If any unwanted reaction occurs please discuss it with your veterinary or canine nutrition professional.  

5 minutes a day. Healthier Dog.

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