What is tick paralysis?
Tick paralysis is a potentially devastating condition that can affect dogs and cats and is is caused by a parasite, the Paralysis Tick (Ixodes Holocyclus).
When and where can ticks be found?
The paralysis tick can be found in bushy coastal areas along the eastern seaboard of Australia from north Queensland to Eastern Victoria (Image right). Ticks are most prevalent from Spring to Autumn however can occur at any time of year.
Paralysis ticks will jump onto dogs and cats and then attach by burrowing their mouth-parts into the skin. They can attach anywhere even in the ears on the lips or around the anus. However, they usually attach on the front half of the dog or cat. Dogs and cats can have multiple ticks attached at once. Occasionally numerous tiny juvenile ticks can attach and cause a problem.
Why are ticks so dangerous?
After attaching, the tick feeds on the host’s blood, injecting small amounts of saliva into the dog or cat in the process. The tick’s saliva contains a toxin that causes the connection between the nerves and the muscles throughout the body in the dog or cat to become disrupted. This causes weakness and ultimately paralysis.
This is not just limited to the muscles involved in standing and walking, but also those inside such as those involved breathing and in swallowing, potentially causing serious compromise to breathing and pneumonia.
How long does it take after the tick attaches to cause a problem?
As a very rough general rule, for a tick to cause a dog or cat a problem it either has to be quite large (greater than 4mm long) or be attached for at least 4 days. However there can be marked variation in the potency of the tick and also the individual dog or cat’s susceptibility to tick paralysis, which may also vary from season to season.
What are some common signs of tick paralysis?
- Vomiting or retching
- Change of bark or meow
- Difficulty breathing
If ticks are attached near the eyes they can make the eyelids paralysed and stop blinking which can cause eyes to dry out and become damaged. Because the tick toxin also causes weakness and dilation to the food pipe, affected dogs and cats may retch and regurgitate their food, water or just frothy fluid. One serious complication of this is aspiration of fluid or food into the lungs which causes pneumonia.
Affected dogs and cats also may have difficulty swallowing which can cause fluid to build up in the mouth and throat which can make them choke. Tick paralysis also often causes difficulty breathing. If the paralysis becomes too advanced and the muscles involved with breathing become too weak, the dog or cat may not be able to breath sufficiently or at all.
Tick paralysis is progressive and potentially fatal and mechanical ventilation in a veterinary clinic may be required.
What does the tick look like?
Paralysis ticks can be identified by their grey body and legs close to the head. Their legs are the feature which best distinguishes them from other ticks that occur in the same regions. Paralysis ticks have one pair of brown legs closest to their head, then two pairs of white legs and then one pair of brown legs closest to the body.
How can I prevent tick paralysis?
If your dog or cats lives in or visits areas where paralysis ticks could be present, you should regularly search them thoroughly, at least once a day. Clipping your dog or cat’s coat short, especially during the tick season, makes performing tick searches much easier.
It can be helpful to use a product to help prevent tick attachment however remember that no product is 100% effective at preventing ticks from attaching and causing paralysis so regular searches are vital in order to avoid tick paralysis. Products that can help include spot-on type products (such as Frontline® for dogs and cats or Advantix® – dogs only), baths and rinses and collars. It is vital to use tick prevention products exactly as directed and most importantly, do not to use any products designed for dogs on cats as these can be extremely toxic to cats.
How to perform a tick search
To perform a tick search, work your fingers through your dog or cat’s coat down to the skin and then systematically massage your fingers over the entire coat. You should concentrate on the dog or cat’s front half as this is where they are more likely to occur. Attached ticks are firmly attached and feel like a hard smooth round irregularity on the surface of the skin. Make sure you check the edge of the lips, in skin folds, between the toes and in the ears.
If you think that you have found a tick, part the fur to have a closer look at it. Nipples, warts and other bumps on the skin are often mistaken for ticks and you should not attempt to remove them. Sometimes the tick has already become detached by the time that you are performing a search in which case you may only find a crater where a tick has been attached.
My dog or cat has a tick, what do I do now?
If you have found a tick, you should use a tick remover to detach it from the skin. You should not apply tick treatments, alcohol, mineral oil or petroleum jelly to the tick and you should also not try to burn the tick. Even once a paralysis tick has been removed it is possible for a dog or cat that was previously unaffected to start to show signs of tick paralysis. Also dogs and cats that are showing signs of paralysis can deteriorate further even after the tick has been removed.
If your pet is showing any signs of tick paralysis, you should take him/her to a veterinarian for treatment promptly.
If you suspect that your dog or cat has tick paralysis you can reduce the risk of complications by withholding food and water before you can see a veterinarian. This is especially important if the dog or cat is regurgitating.
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If you are worried that your dog or cat may have tick paralysis, please do not hesitate to contact SASH’s emergency service, VetICU or your local veterinarian.