The Deadly Paralysis Tick – Could Your Pet Be At Risk?

Ixodes Holocyclus

With a fancy pants name like that you’d be forgiven for thinking we’re discussing some sort of ancient greek VIP.  Socrates, Aesop, Archimedes, Ixodes…  But no, the owner of this impressive name is none other than the Australian Paralysis Tick.  Far from writing timeless fables or discovering incredible sciencey things, this eight legged blood sucker is nothing but a nasty little parasite.

Fun Fact: Holocyclus means ‘complete circle’ and refers to the ring around the paralysis tick’s anus.  It’s literally named after its own butt hole!

Paralysis ticks live along the east coast of Australia where they can experience the warm, humid conditions required for their survival, and tick season peaks in spring to mid-summer.  They sometimes come home from a holiday in tents or camping gear, and so pets can experience tick paralysis a long way from the coast.

This map does not include Tassie… There ARE ticks present in Tasmania that can cause paralysis

While there are other species of paralysis tick in North America, none as as nasty as Ixodes Holocyclus.

If you take nothing else from this article, let it be that prevention is SO SO much better than a cure.  82% of dog owners who live in paralysis tick areas are not treating correctly to protect their dog from the deadly paralysis tick.  However, 65% of pet owners living in paralysis tick areas think they are treating correctly.

A third of dog owners living in tick zones have had their dog or a dog owned by someone they know, die from a paralysis tick*.  Also, many people don’t even realise when they are holidaying in a tick zone with their pets.  If you’re not sure whether you are treating your pet adequately to prevent paralysis ticks, please speak to your vet.

The info I offer here is general, but I am more than happy to answer any burning questions you may have!


*Research commissioned by Merial in February 2014 involving 746 dog or cat owning Aussies

The Life Cycle Of The Paralysis Tick – Trust Me, It’s Fascinating!

I wasn’t sure whether to call this story “The Bold and the Bitey,” or perhaps “Days of Our Life Cycle,” but one thing’s for sure – these little beasties know drama!

Our sordid tale begins with a big old pile of around 3000 or so eggs, stashed away amongst some leaves or under the bark of a tree

After a couple of months, some of these eggs hatch into larvae.  These guys are 6-legged critters that are smaller than a pin-head.  They hang out for a while, maybe play a little poker or just relax in the sun for a bit, then climb some vegetation and attach themselves to a passing host.

This would normally be a bandicoot or possum that has developed some immunity to the ticks, but can also be a dog, cat, cow, or what have you for a few days.  Paralysis ticks then drop to the ground, moult, grow themselves an extra pair of legs, and change their name from larva to nymph.

Nymphs then climb some grass in order to attach to another passing host, and feed on their blood for a few days before dropping off.  When these guys moult several weeks later they become adults, and receive their license to kill.

This is where things get a little cray cray..  The females seek out a third host and jump aboard.  Males also chase these hosts, but they have no interest in the host itself, only hunting for a resident female tick, with insemination on their mind.  After a bit of bow-chicka-wow-wow the males die.  Yup.  That is, unless he then feeds off the female’s blood for a bit, then he can last a little longer…  All kinds of wrong.

The pregnant female then starts engorging on the host’s blood, and this is where the situation turns from a bit weird to deadly.  She continues to engorge for somewhere between one and three weeks.  When she’s had her fill she drops off, lays a few thousand eggs, and dies.

“That’s a HUGE bitch”

Paralysis Tick Life Cycle – In Summary

Okay.  I get that this looks like something from a year 9 school assignment done the night before it’s due, but, shut up. Whatever. My mum thinks I’m cool.

ps. ticks shown are not drawn to scale

pps, No I don’t know why the boy tick is wearing a top hat, who am I to question his fashion choices, maybe it helps him with the ladies.

For those of you who are overly pedantic about ‘accuracy’ and such, here’s something a little more ‘factual’ with less tick fashion.

Life Cycle of the Australian Paralysis Tick (the boring yet accurate version)

What Happens When My Pet Gets A Paralysis Tick?

Paralysis ticks produce a nasty toxin (holocyclotoxin) in their saliva that affects the nervous system of the host.  While the larvae and nymphs do produce a small amount of toxin, it is usually the female adults that cause paralysis.  Mostly vets see dogs with tick paralysis, as cats are a little more resistant to the toxin, but it is still possible for them to be affected.

Early Signs of Tick Paralysis

Symptoms start to occur around four to six days after the adult female tick attaches.  The first thing that may be noticed is weakness or wobbliness in the back legs, sitting suddenly while walking, or being unable to jump up, say into the car or onto the couch.

There may also be vomiting and/or a lot of drooling, and a change in voice.

Later Signs of Tick Paralysis

The dog is no longer able to stand without assistance and paralysis ascends to include the front legs.  Breathing is laboured. We’re in trouble.

Severe Signs of Tick Paralysis

The dog is lying on its side, no longer able to right itself to lie on its chest.  There is severe respiratory difficulty and death is imminent.


If your dog gets one of these ticks and nothing is done, your dog will die.

How Do We Treat Tick Paralysis?

Keep the animal as comfortable, quiet and stress-free as possible.

These poor babies need to be treated gently and softly with extra TLC.  Any stress will exacerbate symptoms, particularly in a patient that is having difficulty breathing, and may be the difference between life and death.

Remove the tick! 

Finding the little bloodsucker can be difficult.  Most are attached somewhere on the front part of the body (90% from the shoulders forward), but they can be tucked away under collars, inside ears, between toes, or even attached to the anus (ick!).

The darker blue it is, the higher the chance of paralysis tick attachment

Ticks can be particularly difficult to find on long-haired breeds, who may need to be clipped to enable a thorough search.  A systematic approach from nose to tail is least likely to miss anything. If you find a tick – don’t stop looking, there may be more!

The most important thing when it comes to removing the tick is don’t squeeze the body. This is where the salivary glands are located and squeezing the body could inject more toxin into the dog.  The tick should be grasped beneath it’s body and removed quickly with as little manipulation as possible.

It’s better not to damage the tick, but in animals it doesn’t usually matter if the mouth parts are left behind.  There’s no one way of removing a paralysis tick, and it depends on availability of implements and how the person removing the tick is used to doing it.

This is a handy tick identification card with two tick removers. The one on the left is for engorged females, and the notch on the right is for smaller, unengorged ticks. Note: The brown dog tick does not cause paralysis.

Neutralising the toxin

If the pet wasn’t showing any symptoms of tick toxicity yet, it may be okay just to hospitalize and monitor.  They often continue to worsen for 24 to 48 hours after the tick is removed.

If they were starting to show signs of paralysis, they need to be treated with hyperimmune tick antiserum. This will neutralise circulating toxins – but not toxin that has already taken effect.  There is a delay of around 12 hours before signs of paralysis begin to reverse.

Prevention, So Much Better Than A Cure!

It really is much cheaper, easier and safer to prevent tick paralysis than to try and treat it once it’s happening.  There are a few things you can do to avoid tick toxicity in your furkids.

  1. Avoid – Stay away from tick zones, or at least keep your pets out of scrubby bush areas.
  2. Check your pet every day – if you’re in a tick area, you really should do a full body check of your dog with your hands every single day.
  3. Use an effective tick control product – These include Frontline plus, Advantix (toxic to cats), Frontline spray, and possibly tick collars.  It’s best to discuss with your veterinarian which product is best for your pet.  No produce is 100% effective, which is why you should still check your pet every day.

Who Wants Some Frontline Plus?

I have two 12 packs of Frontline Plus for dogs 20 – 40 Kg to give away, which retail at around $142 each!  Entry is super ridiculously easy, and you’ve come this far bro!  Just use the rafflecopter and leave me a comment with one thing you’ve learned from this article.  And please, sign up to my mailing list!

I sometimes share really useful nuggets of wisdom, and watching my mailing list hesitantly grow like an infrequently watered pot plant makes me feel happy feelings.

Disclosure: I received the 2 packs of Frontline and some tasty cupcakes from Zing Australia on behalf of Frontline with some literature detailing their current research.

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