Tick Paralysis in Dogs

dog in the woods

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Most dog (and cat) owners are well aware of the need for flea prevention and the risks of flea infestations, but pet owners are finding more and more ticks on their pets every year. Ticks are known for being vectors of diseases such as lyme, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, and babesiosis, but they can also cause something called tick paralysis.

What is Tick Paralysis?

A rare but serious condition, tick paralysis is caused by a neurotoxin present in the saliva of certain female ticks. This neurotoxin causes a paralysis that starts in the dog's lower extremities and 'ascends' up the body into the upper extremities. This type of paralysis is, thus, termed 'ascending paralysis'. Symptoms usually begin after a tick has been attached for two to seven days.

Signs of Tick Paralysis in Dogs

  • Unsteadiness and/or weakness on their hind end
  • Vomiting
  • High blood pressure
  • Fast heart rate
  • Poor reflexes (or complete lack thereof)
  • Pupil dilation
  • Excessive drooling
  • Difficulty eating

Causes of Tick Paralysis

There are around 850 different species of tick around the world and only around 40 of those can cause tick paralysis. Despite that still frighteningly large number (albeit a tiny percentage), the American Lyme Disease Association recognizes four species of tick in the United States that cause tick paralysis: the Rocky Mountain Wood Tick, the American Dog Tick, the Deer Tick, and the Lone Star Tick. It should also be noted that, although dogs are by far the biggest effected by this malady, tick paralysis can also be seen in other mammals, including cats and people (especially children).

Diagnosing Tick Paralysis

A diagnosis of tick paralysis can be made fairly easily if your dog begins to show the classic symptoms in conjunction with finding an attached tick on them. If your dog starts to have progressive weakness and lameness in the back end shortly after a hike in the woods or park, your vet will want to do a thorough exam, checking hard to reach areas for any ticks your pup may have picked up.

If your dog is suffering from any additional symptoms such as vomiting, high blood pressure, etc. your vet may want to run more comprehensive lab work, including a complete blood count, chemistry profile, and urinalysis to check your dog's red and white blood cells, blood sugar, blood proteins, and kidney function.

Treating Tick Paralysis

Unlike other diseases ticks can transmit that are caused by bacteria (lyme, erhlichiosis, anaplasmosis) or microscopic, intracellular parasites (babesiosis), tick paralysis is solely caused by the release of neurotoxin when the tick takes a blood meal. When that tick is removed (either with forceps or the use of an oral or topical preventative that works to kill the tick) the supply of neurotoxin is cut off. Thus, by removing the offending tick, most dogs begin to regain their strength in just a few hours and be back to their normal self in just a few days.

If your dog suffered from respiratory distress or gastrointestinal upset from the paralysis, your vet may want to treat with supportive oxygen therapy and/or medications until your pet is fully recovered.

Is My Dog at Risk for Tick Paralysis?

Risk factors for tick paralysis are less dependent on breed and more on your environment and the activities you do with your dog. Most cases of tick paralysis are reported between the months of April and June, when ticks are coming out of hibernation. If you are located in the southeastern US, the Pacific northwest, or the Rocky Mountain states, your dog may also be at more risk as those regions have the most reported cases of tick paralysis in dogs. Risk also does not correlate with the number of ticks that attach to your dog. As with any other tick-borne illness, it only take one tick bite to cause tick paralysis. So always check your dog thoroughly for ticks after hikes, especially if you were in heavily wooded or overgrown areas. Keeping your yard, or at least what is accessible to your dog, landscaped and trimmed back can also minimize your dog's risk for picking up a tick.

Of course, the easiest way to prevent tick paralysis in your dog is to keep them on routine tick prevention. There are a variety of topicals and even some oral chewables on the market. Your vet can help you determine what is best for your dog. Not all over-the-counter topicals that can be purchased online or at pet supply stores are created equal, so always check with your vet before applying anything.

Ticks can transmit some scary diseases, including tick paralysis. Thankfully, this, and other tick-borne illnesses can be easily prevented by being aware of the risks of your environment, routinely checking your dog for ticks after outdoor adventures, and, most important of all, keeping them on their flea and tick prevention.