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Paralysis Ticks, a Real Danger to our Pets

The Paralysis tick is a native tick of Australia, extremely dangerous to pets, livestock and even people. It produces toxins that cause paralysis in all muscles in the body, including skeletal muscles, laryngeal and breathing muscles, swallowing and oesophageal muscles, bladder muscles and heart muscles!

The natural hosts, marsupials like bandicoots, possums, wallabies, kangaroos and echidnas are usually immune to the tick toxins because of their frequent exposure to tick infestations. Unfortunately our dogs, cats and livestock (including cattle and horses) are very susceptible to the toxins and can die from its effects.

Paralysis ticks are found on the East Coast of Australia, in bushy, scrubby or freshly mulched areas such as parks or overgrown gardens. They thrive in warm humid weather, but can’t survive long in very high (>32 degrees Celsius) or very low (<7 degrees Celsius) temperatures or in very dry conditions.

Traditionally the main Sutherland Shire risk areas were Bundeena and around Helensburgh. In recent years we have seen pets from Kurnell, Cronulla, Caringbah, Woolooware, Burraneer, Grays Point and Taren Point with paralysis ticks who haven’t been away for holidays. So our advice is that any bushy shrubby areas in the Sutherland Shire is a potential tick area. Owners are advised to search their pets for ticks daily.

Spring and summer are the worst seasons for ticks but unfortunately ticks can still cause problems all year round. Ticks can be more active when there is a short bout of rain followed by warmer weather.

What are the signs of tick paralysis?

Tick toxins paralyse all muscle tissues in the body including skeletal muscles, respiratory muscles, laryngeal muscles, oesophageal muscles, heart muscles and bladder muscles.

Signs of tick paralysis are progressive, in other words they get rapidly worse with time over 24-48 hours since first signs appear. If an attached tick is found and removed, it doesn’t automatically stop the progression of signs, many animals can still deteriorate further. For that reason, and because treatment is most successful when started early, it is very important to seek veterinary attention as soon as tick paralysis is suspected.

Early signs of tick paralysis can be:

• Changes in bark (meow) or loss of voice
• Weak wobbly back legs
• Changes in breathing (rhythm, rate, depth, effort)
• Gagging, regurgitating or vomiting

Signs can worsen to:
• More laboured breathing, even leading to exhaustion (due to breathing muscle paralysis and possibly complicated by inhalation pneumonia), severe cases can be cyanotic (blue tinged gums instead of pink)
• Inability to walk at all
• Drooling (not being able to swallow), not urinating despite a full bladder
• Ultimately a patient can die.


What to do to prevent and treat tick paralysis?

During the tick season we recommend using products that target not just fleas but also the paralysis tick, and make sure to use the products at the correct dose and interval for paralysis ticks (they are hardier than other ticks and fleas).Even so, no product used will guarantee to be 100% effective against the paralysis tick. It is very important therefore to do daily tick searches, where you rub your fingers all over the animal’s skin. Make sure to include the inner lips, eyelids, ears (including looking down the ear canals), in between toes, and even the male dog’s foreskin or female’s vulva lips, and anus.

Feel for any small pinhead to warty size lumps or craters. Ticks can be blue/greyish and can be pin to pea size. Remove the tick as soon as it is found, with either a tick hook, or tweezers or even your fingers. Don’t wait until you can get to the vet to have a professional remove the tick, as it is important to stop the toxins being injected. Continue your search in case there are more ticks. Most ticks will be found in the front 1/3 of the body, so concentrate on that area first, but do the whole body daily anyway.

Once a tick has been found, watch out carefully for signs of tick paralysis, as early treatment is much better than starting treatment when signs have progressed. Keep your pet calm and cool as the toxin becomes more potent with higher (body) temperatures.

Even if you haven’t found a tick, but suspect your pet is showing signs of tick paralysis, seek veterinary attention immediately.

Tick products for dogs:
• Advantix – applied spot on, every 2 weeks, will kill fleas and ticks and may even repel ticks. It is toxic to cats, so separate your dog and cat after application, and NEVER use it on a cat.
• Frontline Spray – used at the highest dose range will kill ticks when used every 3 weeks.
• Frontline Top spot – applied every 2 weeks will kill ticks as well as fleas (best not to wash your dog 48 hours before or after application).
• Permoxin Rinses – used weekly, sponge your dog and leave to dry according to the instructions. Permoxin spray can be sprayed onto the dog’s coat as often as daily for added protection.
• Tick collars – these are relatively inexpensive. There are a number of tick collars on the market. They differ in ingredients, and need to be replaced between 6-14 weeks depending on the brand, can only be used on well dogs and are toxic to aquatic life.

Tick products for cats:
Only Frontline Spray and Fido’s Free-itch Rinse Concentrate are products registered for use to kill paralysis ticks on cats.

Frontline Spray needs to be sprayed all over, every 3 weeks with the highest dose range, and Fido’s Free-itch Rinse Concentrate needs to be used every 3 days to be active against ticks.


Veterinary Treatment of Tick Paralysis

Patients with Tick Paralysis will need to be hospitalised, and be treated with anti-tick serum, and supportive treatment as necessary. Supportive Tick treatments vary depending on clinical signs.
The supportive treatment may include:
• Sedation (to reduce anxiety, facilitate further tick searches, and settle breathing) – in severe cases anaesthesia may even be needed to combat breathing problems.
• (Further) tick searches, sometimes helped by shaving a long coat, and often we will treat with frontline spray again to kill any ticks not found immediately,
• Nursing care, including help with urination, eye lubrication, body positioning, monitoring temperature and other vitals, etc
• Medications to prevent excess salivation, vomiting, antibiotics in case of inhalation pneumonia etc.

Home care will include:
• Keeping the patient cool and rested for a couple of weeks, feed only small meals and make sure the patient is able to swallow properly with a drink of water first.
• Keeping a close eye on urination and breathing pattern,
• Continue daily tick inspections, use tick products at the right dose and interval, avoid bushy areas, long grass etc.
• Contacting the clinic if anything worries you at all


The tick lifecycle

Ticks have a 3 host lifecycle. After the eggs hatch the 6 legged larvae (“seed ticks”) drink blood from a host, drop off, and moult, to become 8 legged nymphs. The nymphs find another host, drink blood and drop off to moult and become adult ticks.
Adult female ticks find a third host, attach and drink a blood meal – the adult male finds the female on the host to mate with but doesn’t engorge so isn’t toxic – then she drops off to lay eggs and die. Ticks can lay 2000-3000 eggs. All stages (larvae, nymphs and adult females) can produce toxins and cause paralysis.

Free living ticks on the ground can survive for long periods, especially in moist temperate conditions. The time spent on the host varies, and clinical signs usually develop within 3-5 days of attachment (but in rare cases it can be up to 18 days).

Please contact us for further information about your pets and ticks.