Let’s Talk Tick Paralysis in Dogs: Symptoms, Diagnosis and Treatment

Tick paralysis is yet another concern when it comes to ticks and dogs. So, what are the symptoms of tick paralysis in dogs and how is it treated? And why is this condition so often misdiagnosed?

A sick, older dog lying on the floor.
A sick, older dog lying on the floor. Photography ©stonena7 | Thinkstock.
Last Updated on May 9, 2018 by

Ticks are nasty little bugs that carry and transmit many diseases. Some of these diseases are more common, like Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. One tick-borne disease you might not have heard about is tick paralysis (also called tick-bite paralysis). Tick paralysis in dogs may even cause the terrifying symptom of complete paralysis in dogs.

First, what is tick paralysis in dogs?

A beagle sleeping and looking sick or tired.
Tick paralysis in dogs may come on suddenly. Photography ©dimarik | Thinkstock.

Tick paralysis occurs when a tick latches on to a dog and releases a neurotoxin into the bloodstream. It only takes one tick to cause tick paralysis. The paralysis is sudden and complete. “It’s a very frightening paralysis because they’re limp, they’re wet noodles,” explains Ernie Ward, DVM, CVFT. “These dogs, when you pick them up, they’re just flopping around.”

What are the symptoms of tick paralysis in dogs?

Dogs suffering from tick paralysis can’t stand or walk, have difficulty eating and drinking, and might vomit. Sometimes tick paralysis in dogs affects breathing, as well. Symptoms are not always immediate and can appear a week after the tick first latches onto the dog. Dogs who are most at risk include those who walk or hike in wooded areas or tall grass, but any dog can pick up a tick and be affected with tick paralysis. 

How is tick paralysis in dogs diagnosed?

Tick paralysis in dogs can be difficult to diagnose. It only takes one tick to transmit the toxin, and that tick might be very tiny and very well hidden on the dog. “The great news is, if you can figure it out, all you do is take the tick off and once that toxin is then metabolized and excreted by the body, within a few hours oftentimes, the dog is wagging his tail and is ready to eat and leave,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s quite remarkable.”

In a case of suspected tick paralysis, after removing the tick, the vet will monitor the dog closely and might offer supportive therapy like IV fluids or medications.

Tick paralysis in dogs is often misdiagnosed

Because tick paralysis is somewhat rare and because the tick is not always evident, cases may be missed. When tick paralysis in dogs goes undetected, some people even decide to euthanize the dog rather than watch them suffer because the paralysis is total and is extremely distressing to witness.

“In my career, I’ve probably had six or eight cases, so it’s not something that’s highly prevalent, but they are disturbing,” Dr. Ward says. “It’s often misdiagnosed because if people don’t identify that the dog has a tick, then they think he has some very serious neuromuscular disease. When I’m lecturing to veterinarians, I always say, ‘If you see flaccid paralysis and you don’t have an obvious cause, put a tick treatment on the dog.’ Sometimes these ticks are so tiny, they’re hidden in crevices.” 

How to prevent tick paralysis in dogs

Prevention is the best way to protect your dog from this scary disease. If you live in an area where ticks are prevalent, make sure your dog is protected by a monthly flea and tick preventive year-round. “With today’s modern flea and tick preventives, this shouldn’t be an issue,” Dr. Ward advises. “Especially if you live in an area that has a high tick pressure, you should be using a preventive.”

Tell us: Have you ever encountered tick paralysis with your dog?

Thumbnail:  Photography ©stonena7 | Thinkstock.

It’s Flea and Tick Week sponsored by Andis on Dogster.com. Stay tuned for more tips on how to keep your dog and household safe from fleas and ticks!

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