We just finished the theory section of the PET Scheme through Malta Dog Training (so far, highly recommended) and during our last theory section we learned about basic animal first aid and veterinary information. The vet (whose name we forgot to get and are trying to track down) was a big proponent of pet first aid vs. going to your vet for every little thing (like we used to do).
In Malta there are veterinary pharmacies, and the vet implied that a good Maltese vet will tell you what medications or supplies to buy and what to do with them over the phone. This applies for problems like limping, vomiting/diarrhoea, stings, etc. It was a total eye opener, and absolutely invaluable information (especially for North Americans whose vet fees are much higher than ours in Malta).
The vet also scared us straight about sandfly. So scared that we are going to share with you what it is, how to prevent it, its symptoms, and treatments. We were aware of sandfly before and knew that it posed a risk to dogs living in Malta (and all of the southern Mediterranean), but had no idea how prevalent it was or how completely clueless we were about preventing it.
In layman's terms, sandfly is a small (1-3 mm), tan coloured mosquito that is difficult to see and hear. It transmits a blood parasite - Leishmaniasis - to dogs and humans. While only very young, very old, or immunosuppressed people are threatened by it, for dogs sandfly is always lethal. Sandflies transmit disease to dogs by biting a dog, flying away, and biting a second dog. The second dog gets the disease, not the first. By biting the first dog the disease is activated within the mosquito. Sandflies feed every 10 to 20 days. The peak season for sandflies is summer.
Once your dog has sandfly it will have it for life. Treatments can prolong your dog's life and make it quite comfortable and normal, but eventually the disease will kill your dog. Initially, treatments consist of one injection daily for 40 days. You must then administer one pill daily to your dog for the rest of its life. Scary stuff.
But the scariest part? The disease has an incubation period of up to three years. As in, your dog could have sandfly and you might not know it for ages. You can test for sandfly through simple blood tests, and you should test at least once a year around January. Symptoms of Leishmaniasis include weight loss, hair loss, fever, and sores.
What can you do to prevent it? There are several solutions, none of them 100% effective. For starters, don't take you dog for walks at night between April and October. Sandfly is particularly active between sunset and sunrise during these warmer periods, so avoid getting bitten by going for daytime walks. You should also avoid leaving your dog outside - no sleeping outside, no sedentary activities outside. If you keep your dog moving they are much less likely to be bit, but sitting still they are, well, sitting ducks. You should also protect your home - the dog's indoor environment - against mosquitoes. Placing a fan where your dog sleeps inside is known to be a good form of protection, preventing the flies from settling on your dog to feed. Of course, you may follow all, or none of this advice. You should find the combination of practical solutions and products (outlined below) that you feel adequately protects your dog.
There are many products available to protect your dog from sandfly, but they must be administered as part of a regular regimen. They include drops, sprays, tablets, citronella rubs, or collars. You can use one, or a combination of any, of these products to prevent Leishmansis in your dog. Most of these can be purchased at your vet's office or at a veterinary pharmacy. Some can also be purchased at pet stores - but make sure you aren't buying a very cheap product. In vetrinary pharmaceuticals you get what you pay for.
VETERINARY PHARMACIES in Malta are located in Zejtun, Qormi, Zubbug, Gzira, Gudja, and Marsa.
DROPS: You can purchase drops, effective against fleas, ticks, and sandfly, at veterinary pharmacies in Malta (a commonly used brand is Advantix). These should be administered by you by parting your dogs coat and applying the solution along the dogs spine. Drops must be administered once every two weeks, three days before or after a bath.
SPRAYS: You can purchase sprays, effective against fleas, ticks, and sandfly, at vetrinary pharmacies in Malta (a commonly used brand is Frontline). These should be administered once per month.
TABLETS: You can purchase tablets from veterinary pharmacies in Malta. These are administered once per month.
CITRONELLA: You can purchase citronella sprays at veterinary pharmacies and pet stores in Malta. You spray the dog all over before you take it outside, or into any area where it might be exposed to mosquitoes or sandfly. This should be done once daily before every potential exposure.
COLLARS: The most effective and highly recommended flea collar for protection against sandflys, fleas, and ticks, is Scalibor. Flea collars are most effective on small dogs on which they provide adequate coverage. This might not be the best method of protection for medium to large sized dogs. You should change your dog's collar once every five months.
The vet we spoke to recommended a combination of drops and collar - but of course, find a combination that works for you and your pet.
VACCINE: There is also a new vaccination for sandfly - Cani Leish. It's been much touted in the news lately, but it's hard to put a quantifiable number on its efficacy. Scholarly articles indicate vaccinated dogs have 3.6 times less risk to develop and active infection and 4 times less risk to develop a clinic disease than a non-vaccinated dog. Basically, there's a difference between become infected and getting the disease, and whether or not this happens depends on your dog's individual immune system and the method of protection you are using against Leishmaniasis. Cani Leish boosts your chances that your dog will never get infected or develop the disease. And, because it's an injection, it offers more consistent and easier protection than other methods described. You can read more technical information about it here and here.
Cani Leish comes with a price tag - up to €200 for three injections (three weeks apart) and one blood test. You will also need to have booster shots of the vaccine yearly at a price of €50-€60, in addition to your annual Leishmaniasis blood test.
The price of Cani Leish is high because the drug is new. But it might be a good solution for you and your dog, although it is not recommended to rely solely on the vaccination to protect your pet. You will likely want to continue with a regular regimen of drops, sprays, tablets, or collars. Cani Leish can be administered to any Leishmaniasis negative dog over six months of age. Interested? Talk to your vet, and read more here.
Now let's debunk some myths about sandfly. Sandflys don't just live in sand - they are everywhere. Sandfly is no more prevalent in some villages in Malta than in others. If you live in a flat on an upper floor of an apartment sandfly can still find you - while this tiny fly doesn't actually fly that well, it is able to get swept upwards by the wind. Sandflys do not need water to breed - water actually kills their larvae, therefore your dog is at no increased risk (just a normal amount) in seaside areas, and no decreased risk in dry areas. Finally, no dog - regardless of breed, size, length of fur or hair, or lifestyle habits - is immune to sandfly and the risk it poses.
As always, when in doubt - speak to your vet. We are by no means experts.