The paralysis tick, Ixodes holocyclus, causes tick paralysis. Tick paralysis is a serious and potentially fatal condition requiring urgent veterinary attention. It is important to be aware of paralysis ticks and to actively protect your dog by:
- Avoiding the tick habitat – During the tick season, don’t take your dog walking in bush areas or scrub areas known to harbor ticks. Keep lawns and shrubs short and remove compost material from backyards.
- Applying tick control products – Talk to your vet about tick control products which are safe and suitable for dogs.
- Searching your dog every day for ticks – The most essential preventative measure is a thorough search of your dog’s skin and coat at least once a day even if tick control products have been applied.
- Being aware of the symptoms of tick paralysis – If any signs of suspect paralysis are seen, a tick or a crater left by a tick is seen, then search and remove ticks as quickly as possible and take your pet to the vet immediately.
Important note: Never use any dog tick control products on cats as some dog products are highly toxic to cats and can kill cats.
What are paralysis ticks and how do they cause paralysis?
Paralysis ticks are dangerous parasites that can attach to the dog and proceed to suck blood from them. As they suck the blood, they secrete a toxin into the pet. This toxin affects the nervous system leading to a number of symptoms (see below) and potentially death.
Where are paralysis ticks found?
The paralysis tick is generally found on the eastern seaboard, from North Queensland down to Victoria. In the north, paralysis ticks may be found all year round, while in the more southern areas, the season generally begins in spring and finishes in late autumn. Please note that tick season can be variable, starting earlier and ending later, for example, it may start early if the winter is mild.
Ticks can also be found inland in suitable habitats. Paralysis ticks may be found on animals that live in or near bush or scrub land. Native animals such as marsupials, birds and reptiles are the natural hosts, however ticks can also become attached to animals such as dogs and cats.
What do paralysis ticks look like?
The paralysis tick can look different depending on whether they are engorged with blood or not. When engorged with blood they have a blueish to light-grey/grey colour. Familiarise yourself with their appearance – check at your local vet clinic/vet clinic website, they will usually have posters and photos of paralysis ticks or do an online search for an image of Ixodes holocyclus.
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 (becomes engorged). 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.
How do I search my pet?
- Search pets thoroughly at least once a day, Use the fingertips to feel through the animal’s coat. Ticks or tick craters can be felt as lumps on the skin surface.
- Most ticks are found forward of the front legs, especially on the face, neck and ears . However, remember to search the entire pet.
- Start at your pet’s nose and slowly examine the face, forehead and ears (outer and inner surface of the ear flap/pinna). Also search the eyes and lips and the skin/fur around the eyes and lips. Carefully examine all skin folds as well.
- Remove any collars and search the neck area thoroughly including the skin folds of the neck.
- Continue the search, searching the shoulder area and then down the shoulders to the front legs. Remember to check between each toe and under surface of the front feet. Also check under the “armpits”.
- Examine the chest area, all along the back, sides, belly, inguinal (groin) area, around the tail and anus and the thighs, back legs, in between the back leg toes and feet (including the under surface).
How do you remove a tick?
If a tick is found it should be removed immediately. Your veterinarian can show you the best way to remove a tick. It is recommended to wear disposable gloves. Have a container with a lid or zip lock bag ready to put the tick in with some alcohol to kill it. When removing a tick, avoid disturbing the body of the tick (don’t squeeze the body). Aim to remove the tick by its head at the point of insertion into the pets skin because if mouth parts are left in, they are likely to cause a local infection. A useful aid is a tick remover – a fork like device that slides either side of the tick without touching the body of the tick and removes the tick easily. After removal, dab the area with mild antiseptic.
If you find a tick, remove it immediately and keep your pet calm and quiet. Then take your pet to a veterinarian as soon as possible – tick paralysis is a life threatening condition that requires urgent veterinary attention. Remember to also continue to search for more ticks. Some dogs can be infested with many ticks at one time.
What are the symptoms of tick paralysis?
- Loss of coordination in the hind legs (wobbliness in the back legs) or not being able to get up
- Weakness in the back legs
- A change in the sound of the bark or voice
- Retching, coughing (sometimes it is a moist cough), vomiting
- Excessive salivation/drooling
- Loss of appetite
- Progressive paralysis to include the forelegs
- Difficulty breathing or rapid breathing
- Grunting noises when breathing
- or any other abnormal behaviour or symptom
What should you do if your pet shows symptoms of tick toxicity or if you find a crater or a tick on your dog?
- Take your pet to your veterinarian as soon as possible – tick paralysis is a serious and potentially fatal condition that requires veterinary attention.
- Stay calm and keep your pet calm and at a comfortable temperature (not too hot or cold).
- Search for ticks and remove them as soon as possible (see removal tips above).
Do not offer food or water or give anything orally, pets affected by tick paralysis cannot protect their airway when they swallow (as a result of the toxin) and this may lead to aspiration of food/water into their airways which can cause aspiration pneumonia and serious breathing difficulties.
Are there other ticks that my pet can get?
Dogs and cats can be infested with other ticks including the brown dog tick, the bush tick and the kangaroo tick, especially if living in rural or semi-rural areas with a hot and humid climate. These ticks suck blood but may also transfer diseases such as Tick Fever, which may be a problem for pets newly arriving from a non-tick area as ‘local’ dogs generally develop immunity to this disease. It is best to check your pet every day for ticks and remove any that are found immediately.