Treatment for this common and potentially fatal condition can be complicated and expensive, so make sure you’re covered and take preventative measures.
Tick paralysis affects thousands of Aussie pets every year and the mortality rate in dogs can be as high as 5%. Cats are also affected by ticks, but ticks in dogs are more common, with an estimated 10,000 canine cases in Australia every year. The problem is caused by adult female paralysis ticks (Ixodes holocyclus), which latch onto animal and human hosts and gorge themselves on blood through a small incision in the skin.
Paralysis ticks are prevalent along the eastern coast of Australia, most commonly in humid regions. Although cases are reported all year round, the most intense tick activity usually takes place between August and March.
What is tick paralysis?
Ticks secrete saliva to prevent their host’s blood from clotting. The saliva of Ixodes holocyclus contains a neurotoxin which gradually spreads through the host’s body, causing progressive paralysis. This frequently affects the muscles around the throat and oesophagus first, making it hard to swallow. The paralysis then weakens the limbs and can ultimately lead to death from respiratory failure.
Compare Australian pet insurance policies that offer tick paralysis cover
What are the symptoms?
- Unusual sounds. Because of the way in which the poison spreads, one of the early signs is that your pet’s bark or meow may sound different to normal.
- Laboured breathing. Cats also start breathing strangely, with a characteristic wheeze or grunt when they exhale.
- Issues with eating. Your pet may have a lot of trouble keeping food down, and white froth present in the vomit can indicate tick paralysis.
- Inability to continue normal activities. As the condition worsens, the animal’s back legs become increasingly weak, which can be particularly evident if it has trouble getting up the stairs.
- Mood changes. Dogs can appear to be lethargic and sickly, drooling more than usual, while cats often become irritable and agitated as the poison spreads through their system.
- Paralysis. Ultimately all four limbs become paralysed, breathing becomes extremely laboured and if left untreated, the toxin will make it impossible for your pet to breathe by itself.
These symptoms can progress rapidly over just a few days, and it’s crucial to remember they are not identical for every pet.
How to protect your pet from paralysis ticks
- Examine your pet after it’s been outdoors. One of the most common ways to guard against paralysis tick is to thoroughly examine your pet after taking it for a walk or letting it spend time outdoors in humid areas of dense vegetation, such as long grass. Ticks are usually found around the head, neck and shoulders, and the best way to locate them is to carefully run your fingers along the animal’s skin, as you’re more likely to detect a tick by touch than by sight. Keep searching until you’ve checked your pet’s whole body, even if you do find a tick: when there is one, you are likely to find more.
- Consider medication. In 2015, a highly effective preventative medication for dogs called Bravecto was launched in Australia. This is a palatable product for your dog to chew and provides reliable protection against ticks for up to four months. An equivalent spot-on treatment for cats, using the same active ingredient, is also in the pipes, but this is not yet registered for use in Australia.
- Apply topical preventative treatments. Topical solutions (applied to your pet’s fur or skin) are available for both dogs and cats, but it is crucial that you apply the feline and canine versions correctly. The active ingredients that work for dogs are severely toxic to cats so if your moggy is accidentally exposed to canine treatment, contact your vet immediately.
What is the treatment for tick paralysis?
When a tick is discovered, the first step is to remove it. Use a specially designed “tick twister” or a fine pair of tweezers to grasp the tick’s head, as close to the surface of your pet’s skin as possible, and pull it out. The barbed mouthparts may snap off and remain embedded in the skin, but although this can cause irritation and potentially an infection, it’s not your most pressing concern.
Once the tick is dead, it can no longer continue to inject the neurotoxin that causes paralysis. Nevertheless, it is imperative to keep a close eye on your furry friend, as poisoning can spread slowly and symptoms can continue to develop for days after the tick has been removed.
If your pet shows any sign of being unwell, take it to the vet immediately. Prompt veterinary attention can mean that sometimes a tick antitoxin administered through a drip, as well as plenty of rest and careful monitoring, may be enough to ensure recovery. Fluids are often given intravenously, because of difficulty in swallowing.
In more severe cases, your four-legged friend may need bladder care if it is unable to pass urine, as well as treatment for secondary pneumonia caused by major problems with breathing. Sometimes intubation and mechanical ventilation is needed, meaning that your pet can’t breathe for itself and must be placed on life support to survive the worst.
Can I get pet insurance for tick paralysis?
Most insurers do cover tick paralysis if you purchase insurance for illness as well as accidents, but it is normally not covered under accident-only plans. An annual sub-limit usually applies, in the range of $500–$1,500 depending on your level of cover. Some insurers do not place a limit on tick paralysis treatment, but an excess may apply.
Other species of ticks can also spread diseases such as typhus, but this is excluded from reimbursement by most pet insurance policies, as are illnesses transmitted by fleas. It is only tick paralysis treatment that you will be eligible for if it is covered by your illness insurance.
If you live in areas known for a high incidence of tick infestation, such as Sydney’s northern beaches, it might be wise to consider a suitable policy. Animals are regularly treated for this condition all along the eastern coast, but so far paralysis ticks have not been found in Western Australia, South Australia or the Northern Territory.