Tick paralysis in dogs and cats

LAST UPDATED 15 August 2020

This article is written our veterinarian, Dr Teagan Lever BVSc (Hons)

Tick paralysis is a deadly disease that claims the life of many Australian cats and dogs every year. It is caused by the paralysis tick, Ixodes holocyclus, which naturally inhabits coastal areas of eastern Australia and is most active during the warmer spring and summer months.

Paralysis ticks range from light grey to a bluish colour when fully engorged and they have an orange head and eight legs at the front of their body. The two front and back legs are significantly darker in colour than the two middle pairs.

What is tick paralysis?

Tick paralysis occurs in dogs and cats when one or many paralysis ticks attach themselves to the skin and begin feeding on your pet's blood. When feeding, the paralysis tick releases a toxin along with saliva that causes gradual paralysis. It's important to note that every dog and cat is affected differently by paralysis tick toxin, so not all of the symptoms listed below may be apparent in each case.

Early symptoms of tick paralysis in dogs and cats can include altered vocal sounds, hindlimb weakness and reduced or absent blink and swallow reflexes, sometimes resulting in regurgitation of food or water. Oftentimes pets in the early stages of paralysis show only one two symptoms to begin with.

As the toxin continues to spread throughout the body, it begins to cause paralysis of the hindlimbs which ascends to the forelimbs and eventually progresses to complete paralysis. The muscles of respiration are also affected, making it more and more difficult for the pet to breathe.

Can tick paralysis be treated?

Tick paralysis in dogs and cats can be treated by administering a tick antitoxin, however it is far from simple and not always effective. Most dogs and cats treated for tick paralysis will require a period of hospitalisation and additional treatment for complications, with more severely affected animals also requiring more intensive care including oxygen supplementation or even artificial ventilation.

How can I protect my pet from tick paralysis?

Prevention of tick paralysis involves being aware of your pet's risk of exposure, daily tick searches and the use of an effective tick preventative treatment. Many pet owners who live in areas with high levels of paralysis tick activity prefer to have their long haired pets' coats shaved or cut very short to make regular tick searching easier. If you have a cat, consider keeping them indoors; you'll not only be keeping them safe from paralysis ticks but other dangers such as snakes, cars and cat fights too!

Preventative treatments for dogs

With the availability of highly effective, newer generation oral flea and tick treatments such as Nexgard, Simparica and Bravecto, many veterinarians now class tick paralysis as a preventable disease in dogs. This highly effective tick prevention also now comes in combined products such as Nexgard Spectra and The Big 5 Treatment Packs which also include coverage for intestinal worms and heartworms.

If oral treatments are not an option for your dog, never fear! Bravecto Spot On for Dogs covers your dog for ticks and fleas for 6 whole months with each application.

Shop All Dog Tick Preventatives Now

Top tick treatments for dogs

Preventative treatments for cats

Up until very recently, spraying your cat head to toe every 3 weeks with Frontline Spray was the only tick prevention treatment option for cats in Australia. Now, there are 3 effective, easy-to-use alternatives for cats - Bravecto Spot On for Cats, Bravecto Plus, and Revolution Plus..

Bravecto Spot on for Cats only needs to be applied once every three months and offers the same advanced, highly effective protection against ticks and fleas as Bravecto for dogs.

Shop All Cat Tick Preventatives Now

Top tick treatments for cats

Bravecto Spot On for Cats

A single dose of Bravecto Spot On for Cats provides 3 months protection against fleas and paralysis ticks

Bravecto Plus for Cats

Bravecto Plus has the added benefit of protecting against worms and heartworm, as well as fleas, ticks and mites.

Revolution Plus for Cats

Revolution plus is a monthly treatment which protects your cat against paralysis ticks as well as fleas, intestinal worms, heartworm, mites and lice!

Shop All Sentinel Now

What to do if you find a paralysis tick on your pet

If you think you have found a paralysis tick on your pet, the first step is to carefully try and remove it.

How to remove a tick: When removing, do not put pressure on the tick, pressing on or rupturing the tick during removal can force additional toxins into your pet. If you are not confident in your ability to remove the tick seek immediate veterinary assistance.

The easiest and least painful method to remove a tick is to use a Tick Twister this tool allows you to get under the tick's head to remove the entire parasite easily in one go.

Once you have removed the tick from your pet, seek immediate veterinary attention. Even if your pet is not showing signs of tick paralysis initially, symptoms could still develop as the toxin can remain active in the body for some time after the tick's removal.

Take home message

Prevention is better than cure! Know the symptoms of tick paralysis, keep your pet's preventative treatments up to date and check for ticks daily as no medication is 100% effective at all times.

Remember that if you find a tick on your pet, or if they are showing signs of tick paralysis seek veterinary attention without delay. Tick paralysis is frequently fatal without treatment and the earlier treatment can be provided the better the prognosis.

Further Reading

Your guide to fleas, ticks and worms

Which flea and worming product do I need for my dog?

Choosing a flea, tick and worming product for your cat

Heartworm facts every pet owner should know

Adverse reactions to flea and worming products: The facts