Tick paralysis is a very serious and fatal disease caused by certain species of ticks. Paralysis ticks (Ixodes holocyclus) are amongst the most dangerous parasites that can affect your pet. It is estimated that hundreds of dogs and cats are paralysed in India each year and unfortunately, many die. This paralysis is also sometimes referred as tick poisoning.
Ticks are parasites that live on the exterior of animals, also called blood sucking ectoparasites. There are hundreds of species of ticks worldwide but the potential for inducing paralysis has been demonstrated, described, or suspected in 64 species of ticks belonging to seven ixodid and three argasid genera. The stages in their life cycle are: eggs, larva, nymph and adult.
Environmental factors such as temperature and humidity play a big role in rapid development of ticks. The maximum incidence of tick paralysis is associated with seasonal activity of female ticks, mainly in spring and early summer months, but in some areas, tick activity continues throughout the year.
The modus operandi of the ticks…
The tick first attaches to the dog and then burrows its mouthparts into his skin. Toxicity follows secretion of toxin in tick saliva and its injection into the host animal. Usually this is caused by the adult female tick during its period of rapid engorgement between days 5 and 7. Large numbers of larval or nymphal ticks may also cause paralysis. Tick paralysis affects mainly co-ordination related nerve impulses and manifests primarily as an enfeebling paralysis that begins from the hindlegs and travels towards the head. The tick is fairly small when it attaches to its host, growing in size or engorging as it consumes more blood.
Symptoms of tick poisoning in dogs…
If your pet lives in or visits a high risk area for paralysis ticks, it is important to look out for the symptoms of paralysis. Symptoms of tick poisoning may occur up to 5 days following the initial tick attachment. If left to run its course, a case of tick poisoning goes through three stages:
- A change in voice; the meow or bark becomes softer and/or changes pitch.
- Weakness in the back legs; walking along then sitting down suddenly is a common early sign.
- Vomiting, especially if it happens several times in a day and you see froth.
- Wobbliness in the back legs.
- Excessive salivation and vomiting is not uncommon.
- Panting, progressing to loud breathing, even grunting noises.
- Many dogs will exhibit a moist cough and breathing problems before other signs. (Particularly common in King Charles Spaniels, Schnauzers and other short-nosed dogs, this is a dangerous sign because it may lead to pneumonia).
- As signs of poisoning progress, the animals become unable to stand.
- Breathing becomes exaggerated and difficult.
- As breathing becomes more difficult, the gums become cold and blue-tinged. Death follows quite quickly.
Not all cases follow a simple progression and the animal can die suddenly in the very early stages of paralysis.
Act when your dog gets tick poisoning…
- Keep your pet as calm as possible.
- Do not feed him anything as he will not be able to swallow properly and may choke.
- Call your veterinarian immediately as the sooner he gets the treatment, better it is.
Prevention is better than cure. Treat the pet as well as his environment. In case there are stray dogs in the locality, contact the local pet welfare associations to provide them with tick preventative care.
The following options may be used on their own or in a combination. Always follow the veterinarians’ guidelines before using any of the recommended products to ensure that the remedy is the best option for your pet:
- Anti-tick collars
- Anti-tick dips
- Anti-tick injections
- Anti-tick powders
- Anti-tick soaps
- Anti-tick sprays
- Anti-tick spot applications
The most essential preventative measure is a thorough search of your pet’s skin and coat every day, even if tick control products have been applied. This method gives you two or three chances of finding a tick before serious tick paralysis occurs, since the tick must generally be attached for at least three days before causing paralysis.
- Be systematic with your search.
- Use the fingertips to feel through the animal’s coat. Ticks or tick craters can be felt as lumps on the skin surface.
- Start at the animal’s nose and slowly examine the face, ears, lips and eyes.
- Most ticks are found forward of the front legs, especially on the face, neck and ears, however, be careful of skin folds around the lips and ears.
- Search around the eyes and on top of the forehead carefully before checking the neck.
- Remove collars and search through the skin folds in the neck. Continue down the shoulders to the forelegs; remember to check between the toes and under the armpits. Examine the chest, back, belly, around the tail and anus and the back legs.
- If you find a tick, remove it and don’t forget to search for more. Some dogs can be infested with many ticks at one time.
- Avoid allowing your dog to mingle with strays and even other pets which have not had tick preventative care.
- Regular use of safe insecticides should prevent the tick problem altogether.
- In a multi pet household, ensure that all the pets get anti-tick treatment at the same time.
- For long-haired pets, keep the coat short especially during the summer months.
- Always wear a pair of latex gloves while removing a tick.
- Use tweezers or tick removers to grasp the tick’s head, as close to the dog’s skin as possible.
- Do not squeeze the body of the tick.
- Alternatively, use an appropriate dog-friendly insecticide to kill the tick on his body.
- Put it in a jar of methylated spirit or alcohol and take it to your vet for identification.
Treatment for tick paralysis…
- The first step should be the removal of the tick(s). Frequently, multiple ticks are attached to an animal. The entire body of the pet should be searched diligently and repeatedly, especially on long-haired animals. Most ticks are found around the head or neck, but can be anywhere on the body. Some practitioners prefer to kill the tick before removal, using a suitable acaricide.
- If the pet is dehydrated, he can be put on iv drip.
- If the pet is having difficulty in breathing, he may be given oxygen.
- In very severe cases the use of Canine tick hyperimmune serum, also called tick antiserum, can be used. This will depend on availability of the product in the region.
About five percent of animals are likely to die despite all treatment efforts, especially those with advanced paralysis and difficult or laboured breathing. Older animals or those with pre-existing cardiopulmonary disease are at greatest risk.
For animals who recover, pet parents should continue to searching for ticks from time to time, use appropriate preventive methods to avoid reattachment of ticks, and avoid stressing or strenuously exercising the animal over the next two months.
(Dr Kamaldeep Chaggar belongs to a family of vets and has been actively involved in disseminating veterinary knowledge over the years. She has authored numerous articles and has been a regular on live radio and TV shows. She is currently working as the Veterinary Consultant for Royal Canin (Australia & New Zealand)).