It’s a pesky parasite that can cause paralysis and ultimately death in your pet. Katie Cincotta tells us more about why now is the time to start fighting the paralysis tick.
Their true name is the paralysis tick, but a more fitting title might be clingy little bloodsuckers. Ticks are small, sneaky, and potentially very dangerous. While only a few millimetres in size, if left undetected on your pet’s fur to feast on their blood, they can release enough poison to kill.
Dr Richard Thomas at Cairns Veterinary Clinic says he’s seen hundreds of tick poisoning cases in his two years working up north, and while 90 per cent of patients survive, for many it’s a long and expensive journey back to good health.
“I have lost a few this year, which is statistically inevitable when you’re seeing a lot of cases. There is emerging evidence that these ticks transmit a lot of blood parasites, which means it’s more than just the poison that is damaging the animal’s body.”
Dr Richard hails from Western Australia and says that whereas there is no issue with ticks on the western side of the country, they are a serious problem along the eastern coast.
“The treatment of paralysis ticks was all very new to me when I came across to Queensland. But here, I have 20 vials of antiserum in the fridge because you never know when they will hit.”
Ticks like to come out to play after recent rainfall, which is why they’re more common in tropical climates such as the northern beaches of New South Wales and along Queensland’s coast.
“Ticks are very seasonal from September onwards, and still very much an issue up north, from Mackay all the way up to the Cape. In Cairns, we are pretty much in the epicentre of tick exposure,” says the young vet.
One recent patient at Cairns Vet Clinic was an outside cat that wasn’t on any tick prevention treatment, and went missing for a couple of days. “When the owners found him, he was dehydrated and his back legs were virtually paralysed. He was gagging and frothing, he definitely wasn’t breathing particularly well.”
Once the live tick was identified on the animal’s neck, the cat was given antiserum through a slow IV and fluid therapy to help
his body rehydrate.
“Thankfully, he pulled through. He was in hospital for five days.”
The Cairns-based vet says sometimes cats are more likely than dogs to have a reaction to the antiserum, which is similar to a blood transfusion.
“That’s why when we administer it, we do it very slowly and we always monitor the animal and look for any increase in temperature or heart rate, or the development of hives.”
Dr Richard says there is a huge range in the severity of tick poisoning, with some animals able to develop immunity from mild, repeated exposure and other animals that collapse and need a week of hospital treatment.
“I have seen dogs come in with three attached paralysis ticks and there will be no issue, they’re just immune for life. It’s the same with some other host animals like bandicoots and fruit bats who just groom them off, and learn to mount a response.”
Dr Richard says the latest tick prevention measures offer the most powerful resistance against tick poisoning, including the Seresto tick collar and the NexGard and Bravecto chewables.
Unfortunately, some older products that were once very effective in combating ticks now have reduced potency because ticks become immune to the formula. “Because the ticks become exposed to these compounds, the weak ones die but the strong ones survive, so typically the newer the compound, the more effective it is.”
For pet owners in tick-prone areas along the northern coastline of Australia, it’s important to check your cat or dog daily for ticks, and to consider clipping long fur over spring and summer.
“Maybe use Frontline every two weeks for cats, and consider one of the new Seresto collars. Absolutely, check your animal every day. For dogs, focus on the area around the face and neck, and for dogs with long fur it’s probably worth getting them clipped a few times on a number one just to make it that much more obvious.”
If you do find a tick, you can remove it with your nails or a tick hook, which costs around $7.
“If you’re reasonably dextrous and have nails, you can remove them, but the tick hooks are pretty foolproof. They’re simple to use: you just need to put it on the tick and rotate it clockwise or counter-clockwise.”
Even if you can only remove the tick’s head, the rest of the body will die and is not able to release any more poison. For owners in tick-prone areas of Australia, it’s important to keep an eye out for signs of poisoning, which vary from difficulty with moving or breathing to vomiting.
“Your pet could start to vomit, when their food comes straight back up, or they might have foam around their mouth or hack a bit. Or they may develop wobbliness, especially in the back legs.”
Dr Richard may be a vet trained to treat all animals, but even he admits that this arthropod has the power to inflict terrible damage to its host once it buries itself in the flesh.
“I’m not sure how it is to their evolutionary advantage to do this to their host. All I can think of is that it slows the host down. They can be on there for up to five days, and after a couple of days they will be reasonably obvious in size and they start secreting venom.”
Do not be fooled by their size. These blood-feeders threaten up to 100,000 domestic animals are year, with up to 10,000 pets requiring vet treatment. Keep your eyes wide open for this nasty little critter and its secret weapon — a neurotoxin injection straight into your pet’s bloodstream.