Ticks are a serious problem for dogs and cats. They may be small but they are one of the most dangerous parasites affecting domestic animals. In the main, however, tick infestations are totally preventable.
There are two types of ticks that commonly affect dogs. The less dangerous variety is the brown dog tick. It does not cause paralysis even though it can be present in very large numbers. These ticks can cause skin irritation, sometimes slight anaemia (lack of blood) and, on rare occasions, blood diseases from an uncommon blood parasite they can transmit.
The second type of tick is the dangerous paralysis tick – Ixodes holocyclus. It is not easy to tell the difference between these ticks as, to the untrained eye, they are almost identical. Therefore, you should treat any tick you find with suspicion. Paralysis ticks generally have eight legs in a V shape at the front of their body and tend to be greyish in colour. The brown dog ticks have their legs spread down each side of their body and are brown in colour. But if you are in doubt always seek professional advice.
The paralysis tick is found on the eastern seaboard (can be found more inland if suitable habitat is present) of Australia, from North Queensland to Victoria. In northern parts of Australia ticks may be found all year round, while in more southern areas the season begins in spring and finishes late autumn.
Paralysis ticks are often found on animals that live in or near bush or scrubland. Their natural hosts include native marsupials, birds and reptiles however they can become attached to pet cats and dogs (and humans). Once attached a tick sucks blood from the host animal and in the process secretes saliva into the host. This saliva contains toxins which are absorbed by the host animal and can cause signs of paralysis/tick poisoning.
The paralysis tick affects animals in a variety of ways. Early stages of paralysis can be subtle, typically including changes in the animal’s bark or meow. This may be followed by weakness or wobbliness (ataxia) of the hind limbs progressing to the forelimbs and an inability to get up. Retching, coughing or vomiting and difficult or rapid breathing may be observed. From here the signs can continue to develop until the animal is totally paralysed, unable to even raise its head and having extreme difficulty breathing.
Some cats and dogs do not show the typical hind limb paralysis at first. Initially they may only exhibit a gurgling, choking cough. Generally these animals’ condition quickly deteriorates in comparison to those showing hind limb weakness etc.
Seek veterinary treatment
Quick treatment is vital. The sooner veterinary attention is obtained the less chance there is that the tick poisoning will be lethal. Be cautious, as even dogs or cats that are slightly weak in the hindquarters in the morning can be gravely ill by the evening if treatment is not given immediately. While seeking veterinary attention:
- keep your pet still and at a comfortable temperature (not too hot or cold)
- do not offer food or water as your pet may not be able to swallow properly
- search for a tick(s) and remove as soon as possible (see how to do this below)
Tick poisoning and paralysis can be prevented through a few simple steps. Avoid walking your dog in bush areas known to have a high population of ticks during tick season and keep lawns and garden shrubs short so they are not providing a habitat for ticks. A variety of washes, collars, sprays, spot-ons and tablets for tick control are now available to reduce the chance of tick paralysis. Insecticides on cats need to be used with caution, as many that are safe for dogs can be lethal to cats. Be sure to read the labels carefully and follow the dilution directions on the label exactly and you should have no problems. Ask your local veterinarian for advice.
An essential preventative measure is a thorough search of your pet’s skin and coat at least once a day. No matter what tick preventative you use a combination of it and daily searching offers the best chance of finding a tick before serious tick paralysis occurs. Remember, no preventative agent is 100% effective.
In tick-prone areas it is essential that animals are searched thoroughly daily for ticks. Be systematic with your search; use your fingertips to feel through the coat. Most ticks are found forward of the front legs, especially on the face, neck and ears, and be careful of skin folds around the lips and ears. However, be sure to check the entire body including between toes, armpits and around the anus. If this is done routinely, then ticks can be and found and eliminated before the tick has been on the animal’s body for more than two days, the minimum time necessary to cause paralysis (remember human error and missing the tick is always a possibility though!!).
If you find a tick on your companion animal it is best to remove it as quickly as possible. It used to be thought that you should kill the tick first but current research indicates that this is no longer necessary and that the faster you remove the tick the better generally. Grasp the tick with tweezers as close to the skin as possible and twist of swivel the tick out. Do not pull it out by grasping the body as you may leave part of the tick behind or cause more of the poison to be injected into the host. Pulling the tick off will not kill it so you should spray the tick with insecticide after it is removed to kill it. The quickest acting insecticides, which should kill the tick within a few minutes, are those based on pyrethrin or similar chemicals such as bioresmethrin or tetramethrin, commonly found in personal liquid insect repellents. Repellent creams containing pyrethrin may also work.
DO NOT attempt to remove ticks by dousing them with petrol or kerosene! Applying these fluids to an animal’s sensitive skin usually results in severe chemical burns, which, in many cases, are more of a problem than the paralysis caused by the tick itself. Under no circumstances should you ‘burn’ the tick off.
Once you have removed the tick(s), to be on the safe side it is best to have your dog or cat checked by a veterinarian or at least discuss it with a veterinarian even if the animal appears totally healthy. The residue of tick toxin under the skin may cause a delayed reaction and your pet could still become paralysed. Be careful when one tick is found others may be somewhere else on your companion!!! Keep checking.