Tick season is here so keep a keen eye on your furry family members

By Dr Anne Quain
November 25 2023 - 8:30am


Fully engorged tick. Picture by Jerzy Gorecki.
Fully engorged tick. Picture by Jerzy Gorecki.

If you live on the east coast of Australia, you've probably heard about ticks.

But every year, thousands of dogs and cats are affected by tick paralysis.

Tick paralysis is a potentially life-threatening condition.

The good news is that it is largely preventable, so it's worth a reminder.

Tick paralysis is caused by ixodes ticks, which live up and down the east coast from Far North Queensland to Victoria.

They routinely feed on wildlife, but will opportunistically feed on dogs, cats and even people.

Paralysis ticks contain venom that can cause progressive paralysis in animals.

Signs of tick paralysis may take days to develop following tick attachment.

The signs of tick paralysis include:

  • a change in bark or meow;
  • difficulty swallowing;
  • excess salivation;
  • coughing;
  • vomiting;
  • reduced appetite;
  • a wobbly or uncoordinated gait;
  • difficulty standing;
  • noisy and laboured breathing
  • inability to blink.

Ticks can vary in size, depending on their age and whether, and for how long, they have fed on the animal.

Thus they can be a few millimetres in diameter to the size of a grape.

While dogs and cats may groom ticks off, many ticks attach at sites beyond an animal's reach - e.g. inside the ears, mouth or nose, on the neck, under collars, or around the face.

Close inspection of animals is important.

It is vitally important that ticks are removed as soon as possible to prevent further envenomation but, they must be removed very carefully.

If the body of the tick is squeezed in the removal process, the animal receives more venom.

I like using a tick removal tool (these are inexpensive, usually plastic, purpose-designed tools available from most veterinary clinics) or, if I don't have one on hand, I use tweezers.

I grab the tick as close to the animal's skin as I can and remove it at the base, without squeezing the tick's body.

If you don't feel confident removing a tick, take your animal to the vet immediately and they can do it for you.

If I find one tick on an animal, I always search thoroughly for more.

Even after tick removal, signs of tick paralysis may worsen, or may appear where they weren't initially evident, so animals can get worse before they get better.

Treatment of affected animals often involves administration of tick anti-serum.

It may also include full-coat clipping to rule out additional ticks, sedation, hydration and, if pneumonia is present, antibiotics.

Severely affected animals may require mechanical ventilation in an intensive care unit.

We tend to see tick paralysis cases spike over summer.

This is in part because humidity and heat are favourable conditions for ticks.

But it is also because humans tend to be more active in summer, spending more time with their dogs in coastal areas, and taking their dogs on wonderful holidays.

Often, they aren't aware that their holiday destination is prime tick habitat.

There are increasing options to prevent tick paralysis in dogs and cats, including tablets, chews, collars and spot-on products.

If you live in a tick-endemic area, your tick prevention regime may be sorted.

But if not, talk to your vet about the best preventative for your pet.

Many preventatives also incorporate flea, heartworm and/or intestinal parasite control.

The choice of preventative depends on your pet's lifestyle, individual factors (like whether they are happy to take a tablet or eat a chew), and your own preferences and budget.

When it comes to ticks, prevention is far better than cure.

  • Dr Anne Quain is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.

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