Leishmaniasis in Cats - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment
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Leishmaniasis in cats is a chronic disease caused by a protozoan parasite called Leishmania infantum. Although it is relatively rare in cats, it is a disease is considered to be emerging. It is also a type of zoonotic disease, meaning it can be transferred to humans. Although more commonly diagnosed in dogs, it is possible for a cat to become infested and infected by these protozoa. For this reason, it is very important we are made aware of its causes, symptoms and treatment.
Given its expansion and zoonotic potential, prevention of feline leishmaniasis is vital. To do this, it must be taken into account that it is transmitted through the bite of insects of the genus Phlebotomus.
What is leishmaniasis in cats?
Cats can be infected with a species of leishmania called Leishmania infantum. This species primarily affects dogs and is also responsible for human cases of leishmaniasis. Feline leishmaniasis is considered rare. Cats are generally considered to be less susceptible to this clinical disease than dogs.
Cats can act as reservoir hosts for the parasite, which means they can carry the infection without showing apparent symptoms. In some cases, infected cats may develop mild symptoms, making us believe they have a less serious disease. The transmission of leishmania to cats typically occurs through the bite of an infected sandfly, similar to the transmission route in dogs with leishmaniasis.
It was thought that leishmaniasis was not commonly diagnosed in cats due to their natural resistance and the effective response of their immune system. However, it is also possible that it has simply been underdiagnosed.
Current reports suggest an emerging trend in cases of leishmaniasis in cats. This could be due to a greater incidence of diagnosis, but it is most likely that factors such as climate change are increasing the conditions wherein host sandflies can proliferate in greater numbers. In addition, cats that suffer from diseases such as feline leukemia virus have suppressed immune systems and are more likely to become infested.
Causes and contagion of leishmaniasis in cats
Sandflies can become infested with leishmania protozoa when they bite an animal infected with leishmaniasis. They become the vector for this disease and will transfer it to another animal once they feed again. Both dogs and cats can be reservoirs for this protozoa.
The spread of this disease is almost exclusively from the sandfly bites. It cannot be spread through licking or most other intimate behaviors. It can be transferred through blood transfusions, but this is unlikely. In very rare cases, it might be passed on from mother to their young during labor or lactation. Since a cat cannot infect another animal or person directly, prevention will be based on preventing our cat from being bitten by sandflies.
Symptoms of leishmaniasis in cats
Leishmaniasis in cats is a disease with a long incubation period. This means it can take a long time to manifest clinical signs in our feline. Once these do develop, they are quite nonspecific. The result is that they can be transmitted to other cats without us knowing. In cats, the disease can occur in three different ways with varying symptoms:
- Cutaneous form: painless subcutaneous nodules are observed, especially located in the head and neck. In addition, they are usually accompanied by an increase in the size of nearby lymph nodes, which can open and ulcerate. It is also possible to see clinical cutaneous signs, such as ulcerative dermatitis. Learn more with our article on why a cat has a lump on their neck.
- Eye form: the eyes are affected with conjunctivitis, blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelids), uveitis, periorbicular alopecia or other symptoms affecting the eye.
- Systemic or generalized form: this is the least common in cats. The main clinical sign is an increase in the size of the lymph nodes. There are also very non-specific signs, such as anorexia, progressive weight loss, apathy and others.
Learn about another infectious parasitic disease which can affect felines with our article on the causes, symptoms and treatment of giardia in cats.
Diagnosis of leishmaniasis in cats
If the veterinarian suspects that our cat may have leishmaniasis, they will have to perform specific tests to confirm the diagnosis. Since the symptoms are non-specific, diagnosis cannot be carried out by physical examination alone. A blood sample will be required to determine the presence of the leishmania protozoa. There are serological tests that quantify the antibodies generated by the animal in the presence of the protozoan. Molecular techniques (such as PCR) are also used and a sample can be taken from the lesions for cytological examination or biopsy.
Since leishmaniasis usually appears in cats with a compromised immune system, it is common to also do tests such as blood and urine tests to look for other diseases. This will help us to obtain more data about the cat's general condition. It is common to find kidney failure or anemia in cats with leishmaniasis. Finally, it is advisable to test the cat to see if it has feline leukemia virus or feline immunodeficiency virus (feline AIDS).
Treatment for leishmaniasis in cats
Once our cat's leishmaniasis has been diagnosed, it is the veterinarian who will have to prescribe the most appropriate treatment. This will be aimed at combating the parasite and resolving the symptoms. As there have been fewer in cats, there is still no developed protocol as in the case of canine leishmaniasis.
Currently, drugs such as allopurinol and n-methyl-meglumine are used to treat leishmaniasis in cats. In addition, the animal must have continuous veterinary monitoring to control the status of the parasitosis and any adverse effects of the medication.
Since cats with a strong immune system seem to be able to control the parasite, it is recommended to enhance it by taking care of their diet, reducing stress, deworming and vaccinating regularly. These actions can be considered home remedies for leishmaniasis in cats, but this can only occur after veterinary consultation. The prognosis of feline leishmaniasis is usually good, unless the cat suffers from a complication such as kidney disease.
How to prevent leishmaniasis in cats
As it is a disease that is transmitted by the bite of sandflies, the main preventive measure is to prevent them from coming into contact with our cat. To do this we can use physical barriers such as mosquito nets on doors and windows, ultraviolet light traps or insecticides.
For prevention on the cat themselves, there are several options for dewormers on the market. We will need to ensure to only use products suitable for this species, since those for dogs can be very toxic for cats. If you have any questions, consult your veterinarian before administering any antiparasitic drugs.
It is more likely that we will find sandflies at dusk and dawn, so the ideal would be for the cat to stay indoors at these times to avoid exposure. Accumulations of organic matter constitute a good habitat for sandflies, so the home environment must be kept clean. Finally, there is currently a vaccine against leishmaniasis in dogs. It is expected that this option will also be available for cats sometime in the future.
This article is purely informative. AnimalWised does not have the authority to prescribe any veterinary treatment or create a diagnosis. We invite you to take your pet to the veterinarian if they are suffering from any condition or pain.
If you want to read similar articles to Leishmaniasis in Cats - Causes, Symptoms and Treatment, we recommend you visit our Parasitic diseases category.
1. Ahuir-Baraja, A. E., Ruiz, M. P., Garijo, M. M., & Llobat, L. (2021). Feline Leishmaniosis: An Emerging Public Health Problem. Veterinary sciences, 8(9), 173.
- Leishvet. 2018. Canine and feline leishmaniasis. https://www.leishvet.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/ES-Guidelines.pdf