When an animal becomes paralysed, the first assumption is usually a motor vehicle accident, a victim of snakebite or that they got into some poison. While they are both plausible explanations for paralysis, there is another possibility that sits closer to your pet and is often overlooked, as the culprit is the size of a poppy or sesame seed (even harder to see if your pet has a long coat!). After all, some might think ‘can a small organism cause such a significant effect on a bigger organism than itself?’. The answer is yes – though more commonly associated with itchiness and blood loss, ticks can cause paralysis which can be fatal to your pet.
The most important tick in Australia that affects our pets is Ixodes holocyclus, also known as paralysis tick. Toxins (named holocyclotoxin) that affect the nervous system are produced in the salivary glands of these ticks. They are mainly distributed within a 20km coastal strip along the east coast of Australia – from north of Cairns to the Lakes Entrance in Victoria.
Ticks attach to pets and people, engorging blood and secreting toxins in the saliva that affect the nervous system. The tick needs to be attached and feeding for about 4 days before clinical signs develop. While multiple ticks can infest and attach on your pet, it only takes a single adult female tick to cause paralysis.
Both dogs and cats can be affected. Affected animals would be unable to walk, right themselves and their breathing would be forced. You might see pupil dilation, drooling and involuntary urination as the paralysis progresses and they lose nervous control. The impairment of breathing makes this condition potentially fatal if no veterinary intervention is sought. Initially, dogs would often show changes in the character of bark (hoarse or husky).
Paralysis is possible in humans but not a common occurrence. Humans that have been bitten typically show allergic reactions such as itchiness, headaches and rashes.
Get it off!
Tick paralysis is a serious and potentially fatal condition that needs veterinary treatment. When a tick is discovered on your pet, it should be removed promptly and your vet should be contacted. Grasp them with tweezers or a tick remover as close to the animal’s skin as possible, exerting steady and gentle traction. Place the offending tick/ticks in a sealed container. Resolution of clinical signs is often seen after removing ticks. Even when the tick has been removed, you should still seek veterinary attention as toxins could still be in your pets system and treatment is required. It is important to withhold any food or water as your pet is not able to swallow and protect their airway during an event of paralysis.
Getting the tick of approval
The best prevention is to avoid areas where ticks are active like bushlands and scrubs. However, this is not always possible nor easy. Other prevention of tick paralysis is by using tick control products. There are numerous preventative medications now on the market and they should be used where paralysis ticks are active.
Owners should search their pet regularly for ticks especially during tick season (spring to autumn). This can be done by running your hand through the coat of your pet and feeling for any lumps or abnormalities. Though ticks are typically concentrated on the front half of an animal (front legs, neck and head), they can occur anywhere hence it is necessary to perform a thorough examination. Do not forget to look under their collar and between their toes!
You can consult your local vet further on the best method of tick detection and suitable prevention products for your pet based on their size, lifestyle, breed and location.