PARALYSIS TICK PREVENTION

We live in an area where paralysis ticks are prevalent, especially in certain regions of the coast such as bushland and hinterland areas.  Tick paralysis is a potentially life-threatening event and one of the most common preventable causes of death in dogs and cats along the east coast of Australia.

The ‘tick season’ usually begins sometime in August here on the coast and runs through to April most years. This is the time of year when ticks are more prevalent and active, but depending on the climate we sometimes see cases of tick paralysis through the cooler months as well.

WHAT CAUSES TICK PARALYSIS?

Tick paralysis is caused by the Ixodes holocyclus tick which attaches to mammalian hosts and while feeding on their blood secretes a toxin into the bloodstream which causes the paralysis.

The paralysis ticks live on native Australian marsupials such as bandicoots, macropods and possums, and these animals have developed immunity to the toxin.  Our domestic pets however have not and so if a tick attaches and remains attached for long enough (usually more than 48 hours is required) paralysis will occur.   Ticks attach by climbing to the top of grasses or vegetation and waiting for an animal to pass by to grab onto – they cannot fly or jump.

SIGNS OF TICK PARALYSIS

The tick toxin interferes with nerve and muscle communication.  Often the first sign in dogs is a change in the sound of their bark, and regurgitation of food and drink.  Their gait then becomes wobbly and within a short period of time they are completely paralysed and unable to walk at all or even sit themselves up.

Cats usually present with different symptoms including agitation, a funny breathing pattern, and an audible grunt at the end of their expiration breath.  Weakness is usually less obvious in the early stages.

Within a short period of time the respiratory muscles of affected animals become paralysed and this is the usual cause of death. Cases with advanced respiratory symptoms are the most difficult to treat.

HOW TO IDENTIFY AND REMOVE A PARALYSIS TICK

Paralysis ticks have a silvery grey body and legs close to their mouthparts.  There is one pair of brown legs closest to the mouth, then two pairs of white legs, then another pair of brown legs.  As they feed they enlarge and the body can appear quite dark in colour.

paralysis-tick-anatomy

If you find a tick on your pet, it is important to remove it immediately.  There is lots of conflicting information about the best way to remove a tick, and whether it should be killed first, but in our experience it is best to detach the tick as quickly as possible by slipping a fingernail or tick detacher underneath the mouth parts and pulling rapidly backward with a quick twist.

TREATING TICK PARALYSIS

Treatment of tick paralysis when affected pets are admitted in the early stages is usually straight forward, and most healthy animals recover if they are brought in early enough.  Problems can develop making treatment more complicated however if your pet is in their senior years, or has pre-existing disease of the heart or lungs, or is severely paralysed when treated. Sequelae such as aspiration pneumonia or heart failure can develop in severely affected pets, and all pets should have their exercise reduced for a period of three months following tick paralysis.

HOW TO PREVENT TICK PARALYSIS

When it comes to tick prevention there are many options available, however most of them are chemicals which are not always tolerated well by every pet.  When deciding on tick prevention it is important to take into account the following:

– the length of your pet’s coat, as long-haired pets are more difficult to check for ticks

– whether you can perform an effective tick search on a daily basis

– your geographical location, as certain regions have a higher risk of tick populations being present

– where you exercise your pet, as bushy areas with long grass carry a higher tick risk

Chemical preventative options for dogs include:

– Tick collars such as the Seresto collar by Bayer which must be replaced every 4 months for tick prevention (but lasts twice this long for fleas).

– Frontline or Frontera spray every three weeks

– Frontline top-spot every two weeks

– Advantix top-spot every two weeks (not recommended if your dog co-habits with a cat)

– Oral tablets such as Nexgard (providing 30 days protection) or Bravecto (providing 4 months protection)

Seresto collars are water-resistant for dogs bathed at monthly intervals, and are more effective than some other tick collars when dogs swim regularly. If your dog swims often it is recommended to replace the collar more frequently.  One benefit of a tick collar is that if your pet has a reaction to the product you can remove it.

Frontline spray has been around for many years now and has an excellent safety profile – the fact that it is registered for use in puppies only a few days old demonstrates how safe it is compared to other products.  If your dog swims frequently its effectiveness is reduced.  Frontline topspot needs applying more frequently and has been noted to be less effective in dogs with dry skin.  It also contains more chemicals than the spray-on product to enable its movement through the coat.

Advantix is well tolerated by some pets and not by others. It is toxic to cats and so is not recommended if your pet shares their household with a feline friend.

Many people are leaning towards oral preventatives such as Nexgard and Bravecto, but these products have been available for only a short period of time and so it is difficult to know how safe they really are.  If your preference is to use an oral preventative we suggest trialling Nexgard first and seeing how your pet tolerates it.  If you then decide you would prefer a longer-acting product and there has been no reaction to Nexgard, Bravecto can be tried.  Please note we have seen a number of reactions to these products, most commonly intense itch for a period of weeks after dosing. Side effects can be as diverse as itching, diarrhoea or even seizures.

There may also be a cumulative effect from the use of any chemical, meaning you may not see a reaction the first time, but a few months or years later you could.

NATURAL PREVENTATIVES

If you have a pet whose health is compromised and you want to avoid using chemical products natural alternatives are worth considering.  Options include:

– Daily EFFECTIVE tick searches are your best prevention

– Keeping your dog’s coat clipped short during tick season, enabling more effective tick searches

– Cape Rose Geranium (Pelargonium capitatum x radens) Essential Oil used topically (1 drop between shoulder blades and 1 between tail base daily)

– Homeopathic protection which works to stimulate the animal’s immune system and build resistance to the tick toxin.  Ticks may still attach, and they won’t die, but your animal will likely scratch at the site of attachment making it more likely that you will find the tick.  Animals that get tick paralysis when using homeopathic tick preventatives should recover more quickly and are less likely to be severely affected by the tick toxin.

Nothing carries a 100% guarantee when it comes to tick prevention, so please choose preventative options that best suit your dog, your lifestyle, and your location.  Tick paralysis is preventable when effective tick preventative methods are in place.