Recent research has provided new insights on the epidemiology, pathology and immunology of canine leishmaniosis (CanL) and its genetic basis. The prevalence of infection in endemic areas is considerably higher than that of apparent clinical illness. In addition, infection spreads rapidly among dogs in the presence of optimal conditions for transmission. Infection involves a variety of granulomatous and harmful immune-mediated responses, and susceptibility to the disease is influenced by a complex genetic basis. These concepts will be instrumental for devising control programs. This review, the first in a series of two articles on CanL, presents an updated view on progress in elucidating the epidemiology and pathogenesis of this challenging disease, and the second part focuses on advances in diagnosis, treatment and prevention.