Tick Paralysis in Dogs

tick poisoning

What is tick toxicity/paralysis and is it common?

Tick toxicity is due to the toxin from a tick called Ixodes holocyclus or the paralysis tick. The tick toxin causes various signs which will be described later. Tick toxicity is very common in areas where the tick is found such as along the Eastern seaboard of Australia. Thankfully areas outside of this relatively narrow band of coastal land, pets are saved from the danger of toxicity by this deadly tick.  Tick season may be year round in some tropical regions but is classically spring and summer time (August until April)

What are the signs of tick toxicity?

The toxin causes a variety of quite disparate signs. Initially the dog may start to vomit and then become wobbly (ataxic) in the back legs. 24 hours after the first signs of toxicity, the paralysis progresses so that the dog cannot use the back legs at all and the front legs may also get wobbly.  At this point, the breathing may start to become laboured and the dog will become increasingly stressed.  Within another 24 hours the dog may be totally paralysed and can die at any point of toxicity. Sometimes male dogs may find it difficult to urinate properly.

What can I do?

The safest action is to ring your veterinarian for advice.  If the dog is showing any signs it is best to make an urgent appointment to see your veterinarian.  If you can remove the tick then do so and keep it to show your veterinarian. Removing the tick does not ensure recovery since most patients continue to deteriorate for at least 24 hours after the tick is removed, as the toxin continues to attach to the nerve muscle junctions long after removal of the tick.

What can the veterinarian do?

On arrival the veterinarian will remove the tick safely if you have not already.  Medications will be given to calm your dog and treat the effects of the tick poison.  Most importantly, the veterinarian can administer the tick anti-toxin.  Occasionally the tick anti-toxin may cause some dangerous side effects during its administration but your veterinarian will discuss these with you and give the anti-toxin in such a way to minimise these risks. The risk of not having the anti-toxin is far greater than giving the anti-toxin.  Your pet is likely to require hospitalisation for as long as necessary until they can walk and eat again without risk. Whilst in hospital, your pet will be checked over for additional ticks, this may involve clipping your pet’s coat very short.  Nursing care of the paralysed patient is very important as well as monitoring for any signs of complications such as aspiration pneumonia (caused by regurgitation in a pet that is unable to swallow properly), eye ulcers (which can occur if the patient cannot blink properly) or insufficient respiration (due to the paralysis of the breathing muscles) which necessitates oxygen support or even being placed under a general anaesthetic with or without ventilation.

Can I pull the tick out myself?

You can but it is safer to wait for your veterinarian to do it unless there is a significant (hours) delay until you can see the veterinarian.  Most veterinarians consider tick toxicity is sufficient of an emergency in most cases to justify an immediate appointment.  Most times veterinarians can gain valuable information from actually seeing the tick.  In addition, removing the tick can make the toxicity worse if the tick is squeezed or torn.  If you do find a tick attached to your pet and need to remove it, grasp the tick with fine tweezers, finger nails or a “tick hook” near the dog's skin and firmly pull it straight out.  You may need another person to help restrain your dog.  Whilst people often ask about “leaving the head in” the tick only has a feeding tube and it is not critical if this is not removed.  Finally, it is safer not to remove the tick unless you know what you are doing since veterinarians have been known to tend to pets after having owners remove “ticks” only to find that nipples or warts have been cut off.

What can I do to prevent tick toxicity?

Your veterinarian will discuss these options with you. There are many excellent products such as chews, spot-on products, sprays and tick collars that minimize the chance that your dog will get a tick. However it is important to realise that nothing is 100% and the best means of preventing tick toxicity is to thoroughly search your dog every single day.  We will be more than happy to show you how to effectively perform a tick search on your pet.  It will also help to minimise the amount of exposure your dog has to bushland and prevent unsupervised visits into the bush.  Keeping your backyard well-kept and trimmed will minimize the presence of ticks in the area.

Is there a tick vaccine?

Active research on developing a tick vaccine is ongoing and hopefully will be result in an effective vaccination one day soon.  Your veterinarian will keep you informed of the latest developments in this disease and possibility of further treatments including vaccination.

This client information sheet is based on material written by: Philip H Brain, BVSc, CMAVA, FACVSc (small animal medicine), FAVA

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