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Ticks And Tick Paralysis

In Australia there are many parasites that can be harmful to our animals, including Ticks, in particular the potentially life threatening Paralysis Tick.

Ticks are members of the arachnid family and they attach to their host and feed on their blood. There are four stages to the tick life cycle, they develop from egg to larvae to nymph to adult. During each stage of the life cycle the tick must attach to a new host and feed on their blood. They then detach from the host and moult before they develop to the next life stage and attach to a new host. The natural hosts of ticks are most commonly marsupials like bandicoots, possums, wallabies and kangaroos. Ticks also attach to cattle, horses, dogs and cats which can be quite seriously affected by them. Ticks can be found worldwide but they do flourish in places with warm and humid climates, like Australia.

There are a number of tick species that effect companion animals in Australia, including the Brown Dog Tick, Bush Tick, Cattle Tick and the most dangerous the Paralysis Tick. Due to the small size of ticks it can be sometimes hard to tell the difference between species, and colour is not always an accurate identification tool. The best way to identify the dangerous paralysis tick from the other tick species is that their legs are all bunched up at the front of the body and the middle two pairs of legs are lighter in colour than there other legs.

Types of ticks and their general distribution in Australia.
Image used with permission from Virbac Animal Health

The Paralysis Ticks, scientific name Ixodes holocyclus and Ixodes cornuatus, are the most dangerous ticks in Australia and have the potential of causing great illness and even death to our pets. The paralysis tick is native to Australia and is generally only found along the length of the east coast, however they have been reported in Western Australia and inland, where the climatic conditions are suitable. They are usually found in bush and scrub areas, but can also be found in grassy areas. The peak tick season, when adults are in high numbers, is in the warmer months from August to February. However, the paralysis tick can still be found throughout the year particularly in areas where the climatic conditions remain suitable.

A tick will get onto its host when the animal brushes past the shrub or grass they are on. They will climb onto the host and then find somewhere to attach and start feeding. An animal is usually unaware that a tick has bitten them as the saliva has a local anaesthetic type property to it. The tick may then feed on the animal for 1-5 days before becoming fully engorged and dropping off.

It can be incredibly difficult to find a tick, especially during the early days of attachment as they are quite little. This is why it is essential to check pets daily for ticks, especially during peak season or in tick areas. When checking animals for ticks run your fingers thoroughly through their coat, making contact with the skin. Finding a tick on a long haired animal can be more difficult, so if in a high tick area clipping the animal is suggested. Check all over the animal but pay particular attention to the areas where they are often found like the ears, face, around the mouth, under legs, under tail and between toes. If you do find a tick don’t stop looking as it is not uncommon to find more than one tick on a animal at a time. A tick should be removed as quickly as possible to prevent any further poisons being released into the animal. To remove a tick use a pair of forceps/tweezers or a special tick remover, like a Tick Twister and grab the tick and twist. It is also best to keep the tick to show the veterinarian so they are able to correctly identify the tick, so they know if it is a paralysis tick or not. Do not put chemicals like turpentine or alcohols on the tick as it will irritate the area and make the tick release more toxins before it comes off. If a tick is found contact a veterinarian as soon as possible to discuss and receive some advice on what to do next. Make sure to keep a close eye on the animal over the coming week as the effect of the tick toxins may take a few days to affect the animal even after the tick has been removed.

The toxin excreted by the paralysis tick is very dangerous and can have a life threatening effect on pets and animals. The paralysis tick saliva contains a toxin which affects the cardiac system and the nervous system causing ascending paralysis. From the time that a tick attaches to an animal the toxin is released into the animals system. The toxin is usually at undetectable levels in the animals system in the first 3 days. Clinical signs are usually seen at day 3-4 after tick attachment and peak toxicity levels are usually at days 5-6 after attachment. This is why it is very important to check pets daily for ticks as every day a tick is attached means that the symptoms are more severe and recovery is harder. Sometimes the engorged tick might fall off before signs of the toxin are obvious in the animal. The site where a tick may have been attached can often look red, inflamed and look like a insect bite.

Signs that an animal might be suffering from tick paralysis include;

  • lethargy
  • shaking
  • panting
  • anxiety
  • confusion
  • coughing or gagging
  • a change in voice or bark
  • difficulty swallowing
  • salivation / drooling
  • vomiting
  • noisy / laboured breathing
  • wobbling and lack of coordination
  • inability to stand
  • weakness or paralysis in the back legs, progressing to the front legs
  • dilated/non responsive pupils

If any signs or symptoms of tick paralysis are seen in an animal or tick paralysis is suspected a veterinarian should be contacted immediately. Treatment of tick paralysis can be very difficult, especially in the later stages. Early detection and early treatment gives the best opportunity for a successful outcome.

Although the paralysis tick is the most dangerous tick the other species can still be harmful to our companion animals. Babesia Canis Infection is an infection that is transmitted through the bite of a Brown Dog Tick that is carrying the disease. It is a blood borne disease that attacks the red blood cells causing anaemia, weakness, inflammation and fever. If an animal suffers from a high infestation of ticks, no matter what species, it can cause the animal to suffer from anaemia due to the amount of blood the ticks are feeding on. Ticks, even when only one is attached to an animal, can cause skin irritation or damage and allergic reactions.

When it comes to ticks, prevention is always better than treatment. There are a number of different tick preventative products available that work either by repelling ticks or killing them once they make contact with or attach to the animal. There are spot-on topical treatments available that supply combined tick and flea protection for dogs. For dogs, Frontline Original, Frontline Spray, Frontline Plus and Advantix repels and/or kills paralysis ticks for up to two weeks and brown dog ticks and fleas for up to a month. Tasty chewable tablets like NexGard for Dogs (provides one month protection) or Bravecto for Dogs (provides three months protection), work systemically to protect dogs from all common ticks and are a good choice for dogs that have frequent baths or swim a lot. There are also tick collars available like Preventic Tick Collars, Kiltix Tick Collars or Seresto Collars that are able to be worn by dogs and protect them from ticks (and fleas) for varying time frames. For tick control on cats Frontline Spray is a safe option and controls paralysis ticks for up to two weeks and other ticks for four weeks. Also available are some washes or rinses like Permoxin that provide some protection from tick attachment. When treating cats and young animals make sure that the product is suitable and safe to use as some ingredients may be harmful. However, none of these products are or claim to be 100% effective and that is why it is still most important to check animals daily and be aware of any signs or symptoms of tick paralysis that an animal might present with.

Top Points To Remember About Ticks and Tick Paralysis;

  • ticks like warm humid weather, most common in spring-summer
  • they attach to an animal when they brush past the bush, shrub, grass where they are
    can be hard to find on the animals coat, especially long coats so perhaps clip animals
  • check animals thoroughly daily
  • be aware of signs and symptoms of tick paralysis
  • if any signs or symptoms of tick paralysis are noticed contact a veterinarian immediately
  • remove any ticks that are found on an animal as soon as possible using tweezers or a tick remover, and keep they tick to show your veterinarian
  • if a tick is found on an animal contact a veterinarian
  • symptoms of tick paralysis can take days to be seen so keep a close watch on animals that have had a tick on them
  • early intervention and treatment is paramount for a full recovery
    use a preventative product
  • no preventative is 100% effective, but they are an essential part of keeping your pets tick free

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