Paralysis ticks (Ixodes holocyclus) are among the most dangerous parasites that can affect your pet. It is estimated that over 75,000 dogs and cats are paralysed in Australia each year and unfortunately, many die. We sometimes refer to this paralysis as tick poisoning.
This article is designed to give you a better understanding of paralysis ticks and provide information on how to protect your pet against them.
Where Do We Find Paralysis Ticks?
The paralysis tick is found on the eastern seaboard, from North Queensland to Northern Victoria. It is not always restricted to the immediate coastline but can be found a long way inland in suitable habitats. In the northern parts of Australia, paralysis ticks may be found all year round, while in the southern areas, the season begins in spring and finishes in late autumn.
Paralysis ticks are found on animals that live in or near thick bushland. Native animals such as marsupials, birds and reptiles are the natural hosts (especially the bandicoot, which has strong immunity against the tick’s toxin). Ticks can also become attached to dogs and cats.
How does the tick cause Paralysis?
The tick sucks blood from the host animal and secretes saliva that contains toxins which are absorbed and cause signs of paralysis and poisoning.
How to Identify the Paralysis Tick?
Once on the animal, the tick finds a site of attachment where it becomes deeply and firmly embedded in the skin. When an adult tick feeds on blood, it increases in size dramatically. When a tick attaches to the skin, the area becomes red and a raised thickening or “crater” may appear. A crater is evidence of a prior tick attachment.
Symptoms of Tick Paralysis
If your dog or cat lives in or visits a high risk area for paralysis ticks, it is important to watch for symptoms of paralysis. Symptoms of poisoning may occur up to 5 days following the initial tick attachment.
The symptoms to watch for are:
- Loss of coordination in the hind legs
- Change in voice or bark
- Retching, coughing or vomiting
- Loss of appetite
- Progressive paralysis to include the forelegs
- Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
Not all cases follow a simple progression and the animal can die suddenly in the very early stages of paralysis.
What To Do If Your Pet Shows Symptoms Of Tick Paralysis?
- Keep your pet calm, in a cool, dark place until you take it to your vet.
- Do not offer food or water, as this may lead to pneumonia and breathing difficulties if your pet can’t swallow properly.
- Seek veterinary attention as soon as possible.
At the vet:
Your veterinarian can give your pet an anti-toxin to help in recovery. The antitoxin (or serum) is expensive since it comes from dogs bred for their immunity to ticks. Other specialised procedures such as sedation and treatment for respiratory complications may be vital for your pet’s complete recovery. Your pet will probably require hospitalisation for several days.
How to Protect Your Pet from Paralysis Ticks
a) Avoid the tick habitat
During the tick season, don’t take your dog walking in bush areas known to harbour large numbers of ticks. Keep lawns and shrubs short and remove compost material from backyards.
b) Search pets every day for ticks
The most essential preventative measure is a thorough search of your pet’s skin and coat every day, even if tick control products have been applied. This method gives you 2 or 3 chances of finding a tick before serious tick paralysis occurs, since the tick must generally be attached for at least 3 days before causing paralysis.
Be systematic with your search.
- Use the fingertips to feel through the animal’s coat. Ticks or tick craters can be felt as lumps on the skin surface.
- Start at the animal’s nose and slowly examine the face, ears, lips and eyes.
- Most ticks are found forward of the front legs, especially on the face, neck and ears, however be careful of skin folds around the lips and ears
- Search around the eyes and on top of the forehead carefully before checking the neck
- Remove collars and search through the skin folds in the neck. Continue down the shoulders to the forelegs; remember to check between the toes and under the armpits. Examine the chest, back, belly, around the tail and anus and the back legs.
- If you find a tick, remove it (see section c) and don’t forget to search for more. Some dogs can be infested with many ticks at one time.
c) Remove ticks
As soon as a paralysis tick is found it should be removed as soon as possible. Quickly remove the tick without squeezing the engorged abdomen. Your vet can do this or show you the best method. A special hook or tweezers may be useful.
d) Preventatives for paralysis tick control
In addition to daily searching, application of products specifically intended for tick control can greatly reduce the risk of tick paralysis for your pet.
You should ask your vet for their recommendation.
Some products which are widely used for flea control also have good activity against ticks. We recommend Bravecto, a chewable tablet, controls paralysis tick infestations for four months and prevents flea infestations for three months. Other products are Advantix, Frontline Plus and Frontline Spray. If a tick attaches, Frontline will begin to take effect immediately and the tick will die and fall off 24-48 hours later.
Advantix or Frontline Plus should be used every 2 weeks on dogs for the control of ticks.
Frontline Spray should be used every 3 weeks for dogs and cats. The spray should be applied over the whole body using rubber gloves, take special care to rub some around the head, neck and legs.
While Advantix or Frontline will greatly reduce the risk of tick paralysis, use of the product does not guarantee prevention of all cases of tick paralysis because ticks are not killed immediately after contact. It is therefore essential that you continue to search your pet daily after applications of these products. If ticks are found during this search they should be killed or removed immediately.
Please talk to your vet about the best ways to protect your pet from tick paralysis.
Comments from Our Vets
The Macarthur region is a low-risk area for paralysis ticks. Unless your pet spends a lot of time in the bush, we do not recommend daily tick searches.
However, your pet is at risk if you take them on holidays with you, or even if you go on holidays without your pet, and bring a tick back on your tent, clothing, etc.
Note that Advantix and Frontline need to be used more often to protect against paralysis ticks (compared to the normal recommendations for flea control).
Unlike Bravecto, Advantix and Frontline are not effective against paralysis ticks if your pet swims regularly. In this situation, we recommend Bravecto® chewable tablets (combined with daily tick searches as described above).
There is debate over whether or not you should remove a tick from your pet or kill it first with a fast-acting insecticide. You should not attempt to remove a tick, unless you are sure you know how to do it safely. If in doubt, seek help from the nearest vet.
If you have any questions or need further advice, feel free to contact us.
By Macarthur Veterinary Group