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 several 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 their 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. Therefore, 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, contacting 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 an 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 can 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 animal’s system. The toxin is usually at undetectable levels in the animal’s 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. Therefore, 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 an 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 give 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 several different tick prevention products available that work either by repelling ticks or killing them once they contact or attach to the animal. There are spot-on topical treatments available that supply combined tick and flea protection for dogs. 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 are 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


How to remove a Tick from your dog or cat.


As a pet owner it is important that you know how to remove a tick correctly as they can make pets very sick and even cause death. If you find a tick on your pet you need to remove it quickly and safely, this will prevent any further toxins being injected into the bloodstream. How easy a tick is to remove may depend on the position or size of the tick and how cooperative the pet is. We have put together some tips to be familiar with in case you ever need to remove a tick.

Tick Removal Tips

  • Avoid squeezing the body of the tick as this can cause them to release more toxins into the pet.
  • Do not put any chemicals on the tick. They may be toxic to your pet or even aggravate the tick causing it to release more toxins.
  • The best way to remove a tick is to use a Tick Remover. These work like a hook that you slide under the tick, then pull back and then tick can be safely removed head and all.
  • If you don’t have a Tick Remover, you can use tweezers. Be careful not to squeeze the tick’s body. Hold the tweezers close to the skin where the head is embedded, then pull the tick away from the skin.
  • Make sure that the entire tick, including the head, is removed.
  • Wrap the tick in a tissue and keep it in a container in case your veterinarian wants to see it.
  • Continue to check your pet even if you find a tick as they can often have more than one.
  • If you do not feel confident in removing the tick, contact your veterinarian immediately and they will be able to assist you.
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