While rare, tick paralysis can cause extreme harm to your dog. The saliva of a paralysis-causing tick species contains a neurotoxin that leads to paralysis. The symptoms include weakness in the hind-limbs, difficulty breathing, and high blood pressure. The ticks that cause paralysis are most commonly found in the U.S. and Australia and thrive in humid climates. A vet will diagnose tick paralysis based on clinical signs and the presence of a tick. When the tick is removed promptly, the prognosis is good, and your dog will typically recover in days. If untreated, the paralysis can affect other organs.
What Is Tick Paralysis?
Tick paralysis is a rare but serious condition caused by a neurotoxin in the saliva of certain species of ticks. The neurotoxin causes paralysis that starts in the dog's lower extremities and travels up to the body's upper extremities. Symptoms usually begin after a tick has been attached for two to seven days. The Australian Ixodes holocyclus tick causes the most severe paralysis.
Symptoms of Tick Paralysis in Dogs
Tick paralysis in dogs is potentially life-threatening. Visit your vet right away if you suspect your dog has been exposed to a paralysis-causing tick.
The symptoms of tick paralysis in dogs are wide-ranging and will worsen if the tick is not removed. Symptoms typically occur three to nine days after a tick bite. Paralysis symptoms usually begin with hindlimb weakness and will progress into vomiting, difficulty eating, and high blood pressure, among other concerning manifestations. Your dog may have difficulty breathing, leading to death if untreated. If any paralysis symptoms occur following exposure to a tick-ridden area, visit your vet immediately.
Causes of Tick Paralysis
There are around 850 different tick species around the world, but only 40 of those can cause tick paralysis.
- Species: 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. In Australia, the most common species is the paralysis tick.
- Geography: Most commonly, ticks that cause tick paralysis are found in Australia, North America, Europe, and South Africa. If you live in the southeastern U.S., the Pacific Northwest, or the Rocky Mountain states, your dog may also be at higher risk.
- Climate: Ticks are more prevalent in high-humidity areas. The Australian coast is particularly habitable to paralysis-causing ticks. Most cases of tick paralysis are reported between April and June when ticks are coming out of hibernation.
Diagnosing Tick Paralysis in Dogs
A vet can diagnose tick paralysis easily if your dog shows paralysis symptoms in conjunction with the presence of an attached tick. If there is no attached tick, your vet will look for a small crater surrounded by redness that might indicate a tick bite. There is no single test to diagnose tick paralysis.
If your dog is suffering from symptoms such as vomiting or high blood pressure, your vet may run more comprehensive lab work. This includes a complete blood count, chemistry profile, and urinalysis to check your dog's blood cells, sugar, proteins, and kidney function.
Treatment & Prevention
When a paralysis-causing tick is removed, either with forceps or an oral or topical preventative that works to kill the tick, the supply of neurotoxin is cut off. Most dogs will begin to regain their strength in a few hours. Until paralysis symptoms improve, your dog should be hospitalized or kept in your veterinarian's office. Sometimes, symptoms will worsen 24 hours after removal and then dissipate. If your dog doesn't recover after the removal of the tick, there may be more than just one. If the tick paralysis caused respiratory distress or gastrointestinal, your vet might want to treat your dog with supportive oxygen therapy or prescription medications.
The only way to prevent tick paralysis is to prevent ticks. Routinely check your dog for ticks, especially in places where paralysis-causing species are prevalent. Become familiar with the symptoms of tick paralysis, so to treat it early if it occurs. It may also be helpful to keep your dog on a tick prevention medication.
Prognosis for Dogs With Tick Paralysis
After the tick is removed and residual symptoms are treated, a dog will typically fully recover in a few days. If the paralysis has affected other organs, the prognosis is dependent on the extent of the damage. Even with treatment, about 5% of dogs may die from tick paralysis. This is more likely if the dog is very young or old. If the tick is not removed and symptoms persist, your dog will die.
Is tick paralysis rare?
Yes, tick paralysis is rare because only a small percentage of tick species carry the paralysis-causing neurotoxin. Still, if you notice a tick on your dog, visit the vet right away.
Is tick paralysis fatal?
If the tick is removed swiftly, your dog will recover. The disease is fatal if the tick isn't removed, and the paralysis affects the lungs.
How do I prevent tick paralysis?
The best you can do to prevent tick paralysis is take preventative measures against ticks in general. Check your dog for ticks frequently, consider an anti-tick medication, and closely monitor your dog in areas where ticks are widespread.