Tick paralysis

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Tick paralysis

Tick paralysis refers to a potentially fatal condition when pets are bitten by a particular species of tick, the paralysis tick (Ixodes holocyclus) which occurs in bushy coastal areas along the eastern seaboard of Australia. Tick paralysis is an urgent veterinary emergency. Other species of ticks are present in Australia which do not cause paralysis but do cause local irritation [see our other Ticks Factsheet].

What causes it?

The paralysis tick burrows into the pet’s skin and sometimes several ticks can attach at once. The tick then feeds on the pet’s blood and whilst doing this, the tick injects small amounts of their saliva into the bloodstream. The tick’s saliva contains poisons called holocyclotoxins, which disrupt the connection between the pet’s nerves and muscles – causing weakness and progressive paralysis – not only of the muscles involved in standing and moving, but also of the muscles involved in breathing and swallowing leading to further complications.

What animals are at risk?

The paralysis tick can affect both dogs and cats, and pets can be especially at risk if walking through, or living near, coastal bushy areas – with the ticks jumping onto the pets from nearby bushes, although they can also be carried by native animals. The paralysis tick is prevalent from far north Queensland, through coastal and central parts of Queensland, along coastal New South Wales and some inland pockets such as around the Northern Tablelands and near the Australian Capital Territory, and extending south into eastern Victoria and some parts of Tasmania.

Depending on the geographical location, paralysis ticks can be present all year round, with increased prevalence during warmer months. Once the tick starts feeding on the pet’s blood, it becomes engorged, increasing in body size which can make them easier to find. Paralysis ticks typically have a grey body with a pair of brown legs closest to their head, then two pairs of white legs, and then another pair of brown legs.

What are the symptoms?

The signs of tick paralysis involve nervous system and muscular symptoms, causing a progressive paralysis.

  • Weakness and loss of coordination in the hind limbs, or being unable to get up, with progressive paralysis worsening to include the front limbs.
  • Changes to vocalisation sounds (barks or yaps).
  • Retching, vomiting, noisy breathing sounds and a moist cough.
  • Excessive salivation.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Breathing difficulties.
  • Any of the above symptoms can be red flags to check your pet over and seek urgent veterinary attention.

  • Is there any first aid I can do?

    Search for ticks on your pet’s body and remove them as soon as possible (it can be worthwhile to bring the ticks in an enclosed container into the vets to confirm identification).

    To remove a paralysis tick, you can use a special tick remover tool to detach it from the skin, trying not to squeeze the ticks body.

    Keep your pet calm and seek urgent veterinary attention.

    Avoid offering your pet food or water as the tick toxin can affect your pets swallowing and breathing.

    How can it be diagnosed?

    Depending on the extent of clinical symptoms, your veterinarian and vet nurses will usually check all over your pet’s body to try and find and remove any paralysis ticks, sometimes clipping off the pet’s coat to aid investigation and ensure no additional ticks remain.

    Blood tests and radiographs may also be considered to aid the diagnosis of tick paralysis and rule out other conditions.

    How is it treated?

    The clinical treatment of tick paralysis follows on from the removal of any ticks, with the degree of symptoms affecting the level of treatment required. Pets can be treated with tick anti-serum, and respiratory support will be provided as needed. Intravenous fluids will often be administered along with other medications as needed to manage vomiting, protect the gut and relax the animal.

    Pets will be closely monitored for allergic reactions and any deterioration in their condition. Hospital treatment may take several days and the prognosis will vary depending on a variety of factors including the pets age and health, number of ticks involved and extent of clinical signs.

    Can I prevent it?

  • Apply a tick prevention product to your pet regularly, seeking advice from your vet regarding the most appropriate product to use on your pet.
  • Avoid areas of tick habitat, especially during tick season, and search your pet every day for ticks, especially after exercise.
  • Be aware of the symptoms of tick paralysis so you can remove ticks as soon as possible and seek veterinary attention quickly when required.