Tick Paralysis

Ticks are tiny parasites in the same arachnid family as spiders. They attach to a passing animal and then feed on blood over several days, swelling from an almost invisible speck to the size of a pea. Then they drop off to lay eggs.

Ticks are known to spread blood-borne infections, most famously Lyme Disease, but also several important diseases of northern Australia. However, these are far less important than the spectre of tick paralysis.

What Is Tick Paralysis?

Adapted from Roberts FHS (1970) Australian Ticks. Yeerongpilly QLD by TAGS Inc, Bill Conroy & Norbert Fischer [Attribution], via Wikimedia Commons

Over 40 species of ticks around the world are known to cause neurological problems. Nowhere worse than in Australia where there have been over 20 human deaths and countless deaths of dogs, cats and livestock.

Tick paralysis is caused by a neurotoxin from the saliva of only certain ticks. The main culprit is Ixodes holocyclus, which, although adapted to native species, will attach to any passing animal.

The map is only a guide but you can see that around half of Australian pet dogs and cats live near a tick area. Many more will travel into an affected region in their lifetime.

The best advice on the risk in your area can be found at your local vet.

Signs Of Tick Paralysis

A few days after attachment, a dog or cat starts to develop some or all of the following signs:

  • Change in the voice
  • Vomiting or retching
  • Weakness e.g. difficulty climbing stairs
  • Stumbling and ‘drunken’ hind legs
  • Collapse
  • Rapid, shallow breathing

Signs vary depending on the individual animal or tick, and the length of exposure. Some animals start with breathing problems, others with problems walking.

Without treatment, paralysis spreads throughout the body to eventually cause death by failure of swallowing and respiration. It’s vital to see a vet as soon as the first signs appear.

Treatment with antiserum and supportive care is lifesaving if started in time. The antitoxin only binds toxin that hasn’t been absorbed yet so patients often get worse before they get better.

Prevention Of Tick Paralysis In Dogs

In tick areas, prevention of paralysis is by a combination of:

  1. Daily searching for ticks
  2. The use of tick repellents and tick killers
brown dog ticks

Searching is difficult, and rarely 100% successful. A tick can be found anywhere, including lips, ears and anus but you should focus on the front half of the body. Success is improved by keeping long coats clipped short.

Tick prevention options are found at our review of flea and tick treatments for dogs. However, it’s not as simple as it looks. The products that rely on being put on the outside of the animal (Frontline®, Advantix® and Seresto®) aren’t thought by most vets to be reliable enough, and are easily disturbed by bathing.

It’s the newer tablet-based Isoxazoline products that are the real game changers. Currently, these are Nexgard®, Bravecto® and Simparica®, with Credelio® to come. The regular use of these products is thought to give nearly 100% protection against ticks, although checking is still recommended.

If you live in a tick area, or travel to one, please use these products. Used correctly, they save countless lives. Vets in tick paralysis areas are seeing a big reduction in the number of cases being treated now that the oral treatments have arrived. That’s fewer prolonged stays in vet hospitals and fewer deaths.

Prevention Of Tick Paralysis In Cats

Cats tend to groom better than dogs, and so ticks are mostly found on the head and neck where they cannot easily reach. This makes searching a little easier. Once again, long or matted coats increase the risk.

There are fewer products licensed for tick prevention in cats. In fact, currently just two: Revolution® Plus and Bravecto® (read more about these here). I also hear from vets that Seresto® collars are also being used successfully, though not yet with a registered tick claim in Australia.

Tick Removal

After searching your pet, you may find a small hard bump on the skin. Do not attempt to remove it unless you are certain. Many owners have tried and failed to remove skin growths thinking they were ticks.

To remove a tick, do not just pull it off or use heat or chemicals. Instead, use a special tick remover tool, which is cheap and easily available. This makes sure that as much of the mouthparts are removed as possible.

Of course, if you prefer, your vet will be able to help. Symptoms of tick paralysis can still develop after a tick has been removed.

Further Reading: Isoxazoline Tick Treatments and Seizures