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Leishmaniasis in cats
Leishmaniasis in cats

Very often considered a dog disease, leishmaniasis is actually one zoonotic infection which can affect many other animals, including humans. Let's see in particular what there is to know about leishmaniasis in cats.

cat scratching on the lawn
cat scratching on the lawn


Caused by the protozoan Leishmania infantum, leishmaniasis in cats causes three types of reactions: a cutaneous, an ocular and a visceral, considered the rarest but severe form of leishmaniasis.

Infection occurs when small insects are called sand flies they transmit flagellated parasites to the skin of a host. The incubation period, which leads from infection to the onset of the first symptoms, generally varies from one month to several years. There is no age, sex or race that are affected more, but a visceral reaction occurs more frequently in males. The chances of contracting the infection will also be greater if the animal is already suffering from diseases that affect the immune system such as IVF, FeLV and toxoplasmosis.

The areas of the body most affected are the skin, kidneys, spleen, liver, eyes and joints. The most common skin reaction presents with skin lesions and hair loss. There is also a marked tendency to bleed.

It is a very widespread infection in the Mediterranean basin, in Portugal and Spain. There are also sporadic cases in Switzerland, northern France and the Netherlands, and endemic cases in Central and South America, as well as in northern Mexico.


Symptoms and types

Cutaneous leishmaniasis: affects the skin

  • Hyperkeratosis (thickening of the skin); excessive crusting on the skin, depigmentation and cracking of the muzzle and distal extremities of the legs;
  • Alopecia, dry and thin coat with symmetrical hair loss;
  • Development of nodules on the skin surface.

Ocular leishmaniasis: affects the eyes

  • Conjunctivitis;
  • Blepharitis;
  • Uveitis;
  • Alopecia around the eyes.

Visceral leishmaniasis: affects organs of the abdominal cavity

  • Severe weight loss;
  • Lack of appetite;
  • Diarrhea;
  • Tarry stools
  • He retched;
  • Nosebleeds;
  • Lethargy.
cat lying
cat lying


Traveling to endemic regions where the cat may be exposed to sand flies or other affected animals is the easiest way to become infected. However, even a transfusion of infected blood can lead to leishmaniasis.


The veterinarian will perform a thorough examination on your cat, taking into account the symptoms and possible events that caused the infection. A blood and urine test will be performed to rule out disorders such as lupus, tumors and distemper that cause similar symptoms. Take samples of skin, spleen, bone marrow, or lymph nodes tissue, as well as perform a biopsy of skin lesions is useful in arriving at a more precise diagnosis.

Many animals suffering from leishmaniasis have high levels of proteins and gammaglobulins, as well as a high activity of liver enzymes. In any case, your vet may perform specific tests to identify lupus or rule it out from possible causes.

cat in a bush
cat in a bush


If your cat is emaciated and the infection has become chronic, it is worth considering euthanasia because the chances of survival are very low at that point. If the infection is not yet too severe, the veterinarian will prescribe allopurinol and a protein-based diet, possibly specific for kidney failure. If the cat has skin nodules it is best to have it surgically removed.

Unlike what happens for dogs, which can count on a vaccine, there is no effective preventive measure for leishmaniasis in cats. Organisms residing in the lesions will never be completely eliminated, and relapses will be inevitable.

It is therefore important avoid contact with carrier insects in risk areas: mosquito nets and repellent products can be effective in this regard, but consult your veterinarian before using them on your cat, as they could be toxic.

Life expectations

The veterinarian will need to regularly monitor your cat to record any clinical improvement and will perform several biopsies for the identification of organisms. You can expect one relapse from a few months to a year after the start of therapy; for this reason it is advisable to have the cat examined at least every two months after the completion of the initial therapy.