Ticks are not only disgusting little creatures, they can have numerous negative health impacts on our canine companions. While you might be familiar with tick-borne diseases, like Lyme disease, those aren’t the only health risks posed by ticks. Certain species of ticks can cause paralysis in dogs.
Here’s what you need to know about tick paralysis in dogs, plus symptoms to watch for and how this condition is diagnosed and treated.
What Is Tick Paralysis in Dogs?
Tick bite paralysis in dogs is just what it sounds like: a form of dog paralysis that is caused by ticks.
The saliva of some ticks contains toxins that affect the canine nervous system. As the tick feeds on a dog, these toxins enter the dog’s bloodstream and cause paralysis. In the early stages of the disease, the signs of paralysis may be very subtle. Over time, however, the dog will lose the ability to walk, eat, and even breathe.
Canine tick paralysis is most common in the United States and Australia. Rarely, it can also occur in Asia and Europe.
Paralysis Tick: 4 Species to Know
In the United States, tick paralysis is usually caused by American Dog Ticks, Rocky Mountain Wood Ticks, Deer/Blacklegged Ticks, or Western Blacklegged Ticks. Other species, such as the Lone Star Tick and the Gulf Coast Tick, have the potential to cause tick paralysis but are rarely implicated.
Tick identification can be challenging and is often best left to a professional. However, these guidelines can help you determine whether your dog’s tick is a species commonly associated with tick paralysis:
- American Dog Tick: These ticks are found primarily in the eastern United States (east of the Rocky Mountains) and in limited numbers along the Pacific coast. Adults are brown, with white to gray markings on their body.
- Rocky Mountain Wood Tick: These ticks are found at high elevations in the Rocky Mountains. They are brownish-gray in color.
- Deer or Blacklegged Tick: These ticks are found throughout the Eastern United States, east of the Rocky Mountains. Adults are orange-brown in color, with black legs.
- Western Blacklegged Tick: These ticks are found along the Pacific Coast, primarily in California. Their appearance is similar to the Deer or Blacklegged Tick.
For additional information on tick species in the United States, see Species of Ticks: 7 That Affect Pets.
Paralysis Tick Removal for Dogs
Dogs can acquire ticks anytime they are outdoors, but they are most common in deep grass or brush. If your dog may have been exposed to ticks, check your pet carefully and remove any ticks that you find. Ticks not only pose a risk of tick paralysis, they can also transmit a number of tick-borne diseases, such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Ehrlichiosis.
Ticks like to hide in skin folds and other dark places. For this reason, it’s common to find ticks between a dog’s toes, around a dog’s ears, and in the groin area. Check over your dog’s entire body, but pay careful attention to these particular regions.
When removing ticks, it’s important to remove the entire tick, including its head. Don’t pull on the tick’s body, because doing so often results in the mouthparts being left behind in your dog’s skin. Use tweezers to grasp the tick’s head, as close to your dog’s skin as possible, and remove the entire tick. You can also use tick removal tools, which are designed to simplify tick removal and make it less stressful for you and your dog.
Symptoms of Tick Paralysis in Dogs
Paralysis tick symptoms usually develop three to five days after the tick has attached to the dog. Early signs of paralysis may be subtle, including weakness and incoordination. Without treatment, however, these signs will progress to paralysis of the hindlimbs and then the entire body. Eventually, the dog’s breathing will be affected and death may occur.
Symptoms of tick paralysis may include:
- Incoordination or stumbling
- Paralysis of the hindlimbs, which often progresses to involve all four legs
- Facial drooping
- Grunting on exhalation
- Trouble chewing
- Difficulty breathing
If your dog is showing signs of tick paralysis, seek veterinary care immediately. There are a number of other neurologic conditions that can be confused with tick paralysis, and these conditions may require immediate treatment.
Diagnosing Tick Paralysis in Dogs
Your veterinarian will begin by performing a thorough neurologic exam. Tick paralysis affects a dog’s nervous system, but there are a number of other conditions that can cause similar signs. A neurologic exam will help your veterinarian begin to narrow down the list of possible causes for your dog’s weakness or paralysis.
There is no diagnostic test for tick paralysis. Diagnosis requires finding a tick on the dog, removing that tick (or administering tick prevention), and seeing a resolution of clinical signs over the following 24 to 48 hours.
While this may sound like a simple approach, it does have a downside: not every paralyzed dog with a tick has tick paralysis. Dogs presenting for other neurologic issues might just happen to have a tick or two on their body. Therefore, it may take your veterinarian a day or two to determine whether tick removal was an effective treatment for your dog.
In the case of a paralyzed dog, any delay in testing and treatment can be significant. Therefore, your veterinarian may recommend diagnostics to rule out other conditions, even while waiting to see how your dog responds to tick removal.
How to Treat Tick Paralysis in Dogs
Tick paralysis is treated by removing the offending tick, or treating the dog with an effective tick preventative. Improvement is usually rapid, with most dogs “back to normal” within a day or two.
Depending on the severity of your dog’s signs, your dog may require hospitalization for additional treatments. Your dog may receive intravenous (IV) fluids to prevent dehydration, and dogs that are having trouble breathing may be placed on a mechanical ventilator.
How to Prevent Tick Paralysis in Dogs
Preventing tick paralysis means preventing ticks from feeding on your dog. Remember, signs of tick paralysis usually develop several days after tick attachment, so a brief contact with a tick is unlikely to lead to tick paralysis; it’s prolonged feeding that you need to prevent.
The best way to prevent tick paralysis is to administer year-round flea and tick control. Prescription-strength preventatives are often most effective, and are available in both topical and oral formulations. Talk to your veterinarian to determine the best tick control product for your dog.
If you spend time outdoors in areas where ticks are prevalent, check your dog for ticks after outings. Remember to look around the ears and between the toes, as these are places that ticks like to hide. Finding and removing ticks can also help prevent tick paralysis in your dog.