Tick Paralysis

Dog sitting in field of tall grass

What are they?

Ticks are small parasites that feed on animal and human blood, with approximately 70 different types of ticks here in Australia.  Unfortunately for us Aussies, most tick bites are done by the paralysis tick (scientific name: Ixodes holocyclus).

Paralysis ticks are small, eight-legged critters that are blue to light grey in colour with orange forelimbs, and range in size from 2mm-1cm.

Where & when?

Commonly found on the east coast of Australia (North Queensland to Victoria), paralysis ticks favour warm, humid environments. Don’t let their preference fool you, these ticks are present all year round on the Eastern coastline and still pose quite a risk to their hosts.

Camping or hiking (with or without) your beloved pets increase their risk and exposure to these ticks.  Ticks are adventurous parasites – they can climb up to 50cm in vegetation, waving their front legs around until they grab onto a passing animal all in the hopes of finding a new host. Ticks can also be brought into the home via clothing or camping equipment and may attach to pets indoors.

Whilst bush land, parks or areas with tall grass are favoured locations of the paralysis tick, your pets are still at risk in your own backyard – even if your grass it kept short. Local wildlife act as a transport host for the paralysis tick, bringing them directly into suburban yards (think of it as a tick’s preferred rideshare service). 

Why are they so dangerous?

When a paralysis tick attaches to an animal and feeds it releases a strong toxin via their saliva. This toxin affects the nervous system and its connection to three major muscle groups of the body (causing weakness and paralysis) – making them very dangerous and potentially fatal. These three muscle groups are leg muscles (responsible for movement and walking), chest muscles (responsible for breathing), and throat muscles (responsible for swallowing, as well as barking/meowing).

Other muscle groups can be affected – for example, if a tick attaches near a dog’s eye it may cause paralysis to the eyelid (preventing the animal from being able to blink), drying out the eye and risking permanent vision impairment.

More importantly though, paralysis can affect an animal’s ability to breathe and swallow.  This means the animal may not be able to breathe properly on their own (if at all), which then requires urgent mechanical ventilation and around-the-clock care at a veterinary hospital.   If the ability to swallow is compromised, the animal is also at risk of aspiration of fluid or food into the lungs, causing pneumonia. Therefore, you should not offer food or water to your pet if you suspect they have a paralysis tick.

A single adult female tick can produce enough toxin to cause death in a large dog.

Signs & Symptoms

Early signs of tick paralysis include:

  • A small wart or lump to the touch
  • The area of the bite is red and inflamed, and you may see a crater on the skin
  • A change (softening) of the bark or meow
  • Loss of appetite
  • Retching, coughing or vomiting (including their food, water or frothy fluid)
  • Drooling/excessive salivation
  • Weakness in the rear legs (resulting in the animal sitting frequently or having difficulty standing/walking/using stairs)
  • Dilated pupils

These signs and symptoms progress to:

  • Weakness or paralysis of all four legs
  • Difficulty breathing/noisy panting/grunting when breathing
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Incontinence

Complete paralysis of the respiratory muscles can occur within 24 hours from the onset of symptoms and is fatal. 

Recommendation: If you suspect your pet has tick paralysis seek veterinary help immediately. Make sure you have your nearest emergency veterinary clinic’s contact details on hand (whether on your fridge or saved in your phone) and make sure you know how to get to the clinic – getting lost during an emergency wastes crucial time.

What to do if you find a tick on your pet?

First and foremost, stay calm.  You need to remove the tick immediately from your pet, place it in a small jar/container/resealable bag, and seek veterinary care immediately – do not wait or hesitate!

Veterinary care is crucial, even if you have already removed any visible ticks.  Do not wait for signs and symptoms to worsen - the toxin released can continue to poison your pet even after removal and often requires tick anti-serum/. 

Whilst you are en route to your local veterinary clinic or after-hours emergency clinic, there are some important things you can do to reduce the risk of further complications:

  • Remove food and water – this is especially important if your pet’s is already having difficulty swallowing as they are at risk of aspiration pneumonia.
  • Keep your pet relaxed, quiet and cool – exercise, overheating, excitement and anxiety can worsen symptoms and other illnesses associated with tick paralysis.
  • Perform a search for other ticks – keep reading to see how to do a daily tick check.

How do I remove a tick from my pet?

  • Remove any visible ticks with a hook (commonly referred to as a tick twister – bent two-pronged fork device) or tweezers if that is all you have available (but don't squeeze the tick!)
  • Wear gloves whilst removing the tick
  • Attempt to remove the tick by its head without squeezing the body – do not separate the head from the body
  • Take care to ensure the mouth parts are fully removed (otherwise an abscess can develop)

If you cannot remove the tick, take your pet to the vet immediately.  Do not attempt to burn the tick, apply tick treatments, alcohol, mineral oil or petroleum jelly to the tick while it is still attached.

Using a Tick Twister:

Tick Treatment

Tick paralysis typically starts with tick antiserum administered (by your veterinary) as soon as possible, followed by a thorough search for any remaining ticks that may have been missed.  Unfortunately for long-haired dogs, this will result in a not-so-fashionable haircut. 

Depending on the severity of paralysis, other treatments can include:

  • Mechanical ventilation (if your pet cannot breathe on its own)
  • Oxygen therapy (if your pet is having difficulty breathing)
  • IV fluids (to maintain hydration)
  • Sedation (to reduce excitement/stress and prevent breathing difficulties)
  • Medication (to reduce salivation)
  • Anti-emetics (to reduce nausea /vomiting and prevent aspiration)
  • Antibiotics (to treat pneumonia)
  • Anti-tick solution (applied topically to kill any small ticks that cannot be detected)
  • Regular blood tests (to monitor your pets lung function, hydration status and electrolyte levels)

Note: Allergic reactions can occur to the tick antiserum transfusion so let your vet know if they have ever received an antiserum or antivenom treatment before.

Tick Prevention

Treatment for tick paralysis has come a long way over the past 100 years.  Whilst the most significant advancement is the availability of tick antiserum, the most helpful advancement is the availability of preventative treatments.

Tick preventatives are considered highly effective, as they offer long lasting protection, at a low cost, with a lower rate of adverse reactions. Whilst there are varied application methods available on the market today, spot-on and chewable are the widely preferred method.  These products kill ticks via contact with your pet’s blood.

Some scientists and veterinarians are also questioning how effective “tick collars” and spray products are – so please speak to a qualified veterinarian to determine which product will be the most suitable for your lifestyle and location.  As paralysis ticks can be active at any time of the year, expect to use tick prevention all year round for both dogs and cats.

Tick Searches & Daily Checks

It is important to point out that no preventative is 100% effective or fool-proof – you need to be limiting your pet’s exposure to ticks and check their coat thoroughly every day.

Whilst this may seem daunting or time consuming, it is an invaluable activity to include in your daily routine.  Not only can you use this time to check for ticks, but you will also become familiar with your pet’s “normal” – do they have any bumps, lumps, skin tags, hot spots, bites, rashes, or hyperpigmentation?  By noticing changes early, you can seek appropriate treatment and care before small things become big problems (or even just to give yourself peace of mind).

To do a tick search or check, you need to start from the nose and work your way down to the tail.  Slowly move your fingertips through your pet’s coat, in both directions of fur growth.  Pay special attention to the head, face, neck, and front half of the animal (front legs) as well as around any warm areas (yes, this also includes their bum).

You need to be careful but thorough – remove any collars or accessories, look in the nostrils, the folds of the lips/mouth, the little pocket on the inner flap of the ear, between the adorable toe beans and nails, as well as in any skin folds. Once attached, ticks will feel like a hard, round, and smooth irregularity on the surface of the skin.

Some pets rather enjoy this process (like a daily massage) however if your pet is uncomfortable being handled, seek advice from a qualified, fear-free behavioural trainer.


Helpful Resources

Australian Animal Poisons Hotline
If you are concerned your pet is having a reaction to a preventative treatment (including flea treatments and preventatives), you can contact the Australian Animal Poisons Helpline.  Their service is free 7 days a week from 9am-5pm AEST by calling 1300 869 738 (from Australia) or 0800 869 738 (from New Zealand).

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