Tick Season: Protecting Your Pet Posted on October 27, 2023 As the weather starts to heat up, protecting your furry friends against ticks becomes more important than ever. Tick paralysis is a serious and potentially fatal condition that requires urgent veterinary treatment should it affect your beloved pet. Along the east coast of Australia, tick paralysis is one of the most common preventable causes of death in dogs and cats. That is why it is essential to actively protect your pets using easy to use, over the counter tick prevention medication found in vet clinics and pet stores. What are paralysis ticks? Paralysis ticks are dangerous parasites that can latch onto people and animals to consume blood meals. As they drain a host’s blood, they secrete a toxin which affects the animal’s nervous system. The toxin can cause severe clinical signs such as vomiting, the inability to walk and the inability to breathe, which, if left untreated, can lead to death. The paralysis tick can look different depending on whether they are engorged with blood or not. When engorged with blood they have a bluish to light grey colour. You can familiarise yourself with their appearance at your local vet clinic – which will usually have posters and photos of paralysis ticks at various stages of their life cycle – or refer to online images of ‘Ixodes holocyclus’. Once fixed to a host, ticks will often then find a patch of sensitive, sheltered skin, where it will firmly and deeply embed itself to draw blood. When a tick attaches to the skin, the affected area may then appear red, and a raised thickening or “crater” may appear around the tick (a thickening or crater can also be considered evidence of a prior tick attachment). When an adult tick feeds on blood, it dramatically increases in size; it’s important to remember that a tick’s appearance indicates where it is in its overall life cycle. Image: Creature Clinic Australia Where are paralysis ticks located? Paralysis ticks are prevalent along the east coast of Australia, from Queensland, the New South Wales coast and down through and along Victoria. However, paralysis ticks are also found in several inland areas. A typical paralysis tick likes to occupy bush land or scrub. Pets can pick up a paralysis tick when they travel to a bush/scrub area, at home in their backyard or even in a local park depending on where they live. Native Australian animals are the natural hosts of paralysis ticks; however they are known to prey on cats, dogs and even humans in some cases. While ticks are notoriously more prevalent in Spring, Summer and the beginning of Autumn, it’s important to note that they can appear at any time of the year. What are the symptoms of tick paralysis? Symptoms can vary but common signs can include: Dogs A change in the sound of the bark or voice Gagging/retching Regurgitation or vomiting (sometimes with froth) Breathing changes – difficulty breathing often with a characteristic grunting sound Wobbliness in the back legs which worsens to paralysis and an inability to stand (sometimes owners describe it as ‘my dog has gone in the back legs’) Excessive salivation/drooling (sometimes frothing around the mouth area) Coughing (sometimes it is a moist cough) Not eating Progressive paralysis to include the forelegs Other abnormal behaviour Cats Agitation Sound of meow may change Unusual breathing pattern with a soft grunt at the end of expiration (breathing out) Weakness, though this is typically less obvious to owners early on Gagging or retching Salivation Not eating More advanced stages include a more obvious difficulty in walking, staggering and swaying Other abnormal behaviour In unusual cases, your pet may not develop the expected symptoms of tick paralysis. But even if they instead show other signs of illness, you should still bring your furry friend to your vet. How can I protect my pets from the paralysis tick? Apply tick control products as recommended by your veterinarian: talk to your veterinarian about using tick control products that are safe and suitable for your pet. *Safety warning* – never apply dog tick products to cats as some dog products can kill cats. Your veterinarian can discuss safe options available for cats. Search your pet for ticks every day: the most essential preventative measure is a thorough search of your pet’s skin and coat at least once a day even if tick control products have been used. Be aware of the symptoms of tick paralysis: knowing the symptoms will mean that you can identify a tick paralysis problem as early as possible, improving your pet’s chances of survival as veterinary treatment can be given faster. If any symptoms/signs of tick paralysis are seen or a tick or tick crater is seen, stay calm and keep your pet calm. While staying calm, do a quick tick search and remove any ticks found then contact your veterinarian immediately. If it’s after hours, contact a 24/7 emergency veterinary hospital. Do not wait until the morning. Avoid tick habitats: during the tick season, don’t take your pet through bush or scrub areas known to harbour ticks. Keep lawns and shrubs short and remove compost material from backyards. How do I check my pet for ticks? It is important to conduct regular checks on your pet to ensure they are tick free. This is particularly important after spending time outside. Search your pets thoroughly at least once a day. Use your fingertips to feel through the animal’s coat; you may be able to feel ticks or tick craters as lumps on the skin’s surface. Most ticks are found forward of the front legs, especially on the face, neck and ears. However, it is very important to search your entire pet. Start at your pet’s nose and slowly examine the face, forehead and ears (outer and inner surface of the ear flap). Also search the eyes and lips and the skin/fur around the eyes and lips. Carefully examine all skin folds. 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. Don’t forget to check under the ‘armpits’. Examine the chest area, all along the back, sides, belly, groin area, around the tail and anus and the thighs, back legs, in between the back-leg toes and feet (including the under surface). What should you do if your pet shows signs of tick toxicity or if you find a crater or a tick on your pet? If you have found a tick, remove it immediately. This is done by pinching your thumb and index finger on the head of the tick, twisting clockwise and pulling the tick away simultaneously. There are also tick removing tools which can be purchased from pet stores which may be useful. If you are worried you have left any mouthparts of the tick on your animal, speak to your veterinarian. If you have not found a tick, do a search for ticks and remove any if found. Try your best to keep your pet calm and at a comfortable temperature (not too hot or cold). This is because any increases in stress will increase your pet’s circulation and increase the circulating tick toxin. Do not offer food or water or give anything by mouth. Pets affected by tick paralysis cannot protect their airway when they swallow (because of the toxin) and this may lead to aspiration of food/water into their airways which can cause aspiration pneumonia and serious breathing difficulties. Immediately contact a veterinarian for advice. It is important to seek emergency veterinary care even if you remove the offending tick(s) or unable to observe any symptoms. If it is after hours, contact a 24/7 emergency veterinary hospital. Do not wait until the morning. If you’re unsure if your pet is experiencing tick paralysis specifically, it’s better to be safe than sorry, so still reach out to a veterinarian. What treatment do veterinarians give to help pets with tick paralysis? If your pet has tick paralysis, they will need to be treated by a veterinarian – with a higher rate of successful treatment the sooner they are seen by a veterinarian. Veterinary treatment mainly involves administration of tick antiserum, intravenous fluid therapy (a drip), and a period of hospitalisation for supportive medical care. It is best to check your pet every day for ticks and remove any that are found immediately. If you are not sure about the ticks in your area, please contact your local veterinarian. There are several products on the market that can help protect your pets against ticks and fleas. Remember that some dog tick treatments can be lethal if applied to cats, so always talk to your local veterinarian first about which products will be safe for your furry friends before applying. You can find out more information about ticks in the RSPCA Knowledgebase.