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Tick season: What to do if you find one

As the warm weather lingers, there are still lots of opportunities to spend time outdoors with our pets. So it is even more important to remember that tick season is upon us. Paralysis ticks are a serious threat to dogs and cats, so make sure you’re fully prepared to keep your furry friend safe.

Ticks are external parasites that suck the blood of their hosts. Their natural hosts are native marsupials, birds and reptiles, but they can also attach to dogs and cats. Ticks are found along the eastern coast of Australia and are a risk all year round, although in the southern parts they are mostly active from spring to late autumn. They can also be found inland in areas with bushland or scrub.

Nerves and muscles can be affected by ticks

The reason to be alert for ticks is that the toxin they secrete into dogs and cats from their saliva interrupts the connection between nerves and muscles throughout the body, causing a potentially fatal paralysis. Despite intensive (and expensive) veterinary treatment, too many pet lives are lost to tick paralysis every year, but this potentially deadly condition is largely preventable.

The best way to protect your pet is to search his or her coat daily. Paralysis ticks are small insects (between 3mm and 10 mm in width) with 8 legs and are grey to bluish in colour when they become engorged with blood. Make sure you familiarise yourself with how they look to help with early identification should your pet be bitten.

To search your pet for ticks, simply run your fingers through their fur, starting at the nose and including the face, neck, ears and front leg areas where ticks are most likely to attach, then working towards the tail. Ticks (and tick craters, raised areas that indicate a previous tick attachment) will feel like small lumps on the skin’s surface. Remember to remove your pet’s collar so you can search their whole body, and don’t forget sneaky areas such as ‘armpits’ and in between the toes. Having long-haired pets clipped for summer makes it easier to check them over thoroughly. Pets can learn to enjoy the tick search if you include a good belly rub and a treat at the end.

Check what tick products will best suit your pet

Apart from physically checking them, you can protect your dog or cat from tick paralysis by using a regular tick prevention product specific to your pet’s species. This is crucial because some products designed for dogs can be fatal if given to cats. Ask your veterinarian for advice if you are confused about the products available but remember that no product is 100% effective, so daily checking is the best protection and you should still check your pet daily even when using a tick prevention product. It’s also wise to avoid taking your pet to tick-infested areas and to keep your backyard free from scrub, compost or long grass.

Clinical signs of tick paralysis

Recognising the clinical signs of tick paralysis can save your pet’s life, as you will realise the need to search for and remove any ticks as soon as possible and seek urgent veterinary treatment. Pets with tick paralysis typically have a change in the sound of their voice, loss of appetite, coughing or vomiting, drooling, difficulty breathing, loss of coordination and paralysis that starts in the back legs and moves to the front legs, leading to collapse.

To remove or not to remove?

So, if you find a tick on your dog or cat, how should you remove it? Stay calm and use your fingers (wearing disposable gloves) or a pair of tweezers to grab the tick by its head as close as possible to where it enters the skin and pull to remove it in a twist and pluck action, making sure not to leave the mouth parts attached, as this can lead to infection and inflammation. You can prepare in advance by buying a tick remover. After removal, keep the tick for identification and dab your pet’s skin with a mild antiseptic, keep them calm at a comfortable temperature and take them immediately for veterinary treatment whether or not any clinical signs are present, because signs can take up to 24 hours to develop after a tick has been removed.

This could be your local veterinarian if open, or otherwise a 24 hour emergency veterinary hospital. It’s best to call in advance for phone advice. Get help from someone else if you can because it’s likely your pet may have more ticks on their body that need removing. And don’t allow your pet to eat or drink, because the paralysis can affect their ability to swallow, which puts them at risk of aspiration pneumonia.

Diagnosis, management and treatment

If your pet is taken for veterinary treatment after evidence of a tick bite or clinical signs from a suspected tick bite, this could involve hospitalisation with a full body clip and tick search (possibly with sedation), monitoring, the administration of tick antitoxin serum, fluid therapy and oxygen supplementation. In 2019, the Australian Paralysis Tick Advisory Panel established guidelines for the diagnosis, management, treatment and prevention of tick paralysis in dogs and cats, but these guidelines acknowledge that: “In all cases of tick paralysis, despite appropriate treatment, the outcome can still be unpredictable.”

Ensure the safety of your pets this summer

Paralysis ticks are a serious threat to the safety and lives of dogs and cats in many areas of Australia, but tick paralysis can be prevented. As a pet owner, being prepared with knowledge about the signs of tick paralysis, knowing how to check your pet thoroughly, using a tick prevention product and avoiding tick areas will help you to keep your pet safe. Despite this, the unexpected can happen. Having a pet insurance policy can help protect you from potentially huge bills if your pet was to be bitten by a tick, but remember that an annual condition limit may apply (eligibility criteria may also apply).

Image of Dr Rosemary Elliot

Dr Rosemary Elliot 

Dr Rosemary studied veterinary science at the University of Sydney after having established her career as a clinical psychologist, and has qualifications of BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), MPsych (Clin), BA (Hons) as well as previously establishing her career as a clinical psychologist. Her experiences during veterinary training fostered an ambition to focus directly on animal welfare and ethics, with a particular interest in animal sentience and the human-animal bond. Currently working in small animal practice, Dr Rosemary combines her psychology background and veterinary skills to contribute to and promote animal welfare, and regularly contributes quality content to RSPCA Pet Insurance's Pet Care blog.