Tick Paralysis in Cats

Sonja Cox, DVM
Written by:
Published: May 11, 2022
Tick Paralysis in Cats

What Is Tick Paralysis in Cats?

Tick paralysis is a neurotoxic condition in cats (and dogs) after a tick bite. It occurs mainly in the United States and Australia, and less commonly in parts of Europe and Asia. In the United States, female ticks of the genera Dermacentor and Ixodes are typically responsible for secreting neurotoxins in their bite.

Ticks have four life stages:

  • Eggs

  • Larvae

  • Nymph (young adult)

  • Adult

Female ticks lay up to a few thousand eggs per litter. These remain as eggs for about two months, then hatch to become larvae, which start to search for blood. They feed for about 5 days before falling off the first host and undergoing the change to young adult.

After molting into a young adult, a tick takes blood from its second host, and if many young adults are present on the host, they can cause paralysis. Ticks are most likely to cause tick paralysis after molting into an adult and after latching onto their second host. Their saliva transmits the neurotoxins responsible for tick paralysis.

Symptoms of Tick Paralysis in Cats

Neurotoxins secreted in the saliva of affected ticks, then transferred to a cat’s bloodstream through a bite, cause rapidly progressing neurologic signs that start with weakness in the cat’s hind limbs and ascend to cause weakness in the forelimbs. Paralysis of all four legs can follow.

Less commonly, cranial nerves may become involved. This causes trouble swallowing and change in voice/meow.

In even more serious cases, respiratory distress can develop due to paralysis of respiratory muscles, possibly causing respiratory failure. Signs associated with this disease will progress rapidly if the tick is not removed promptly.

Causes of Tick Paralysis in Cats

Tick paralysis is contracted through a bite from an affected tick, and clinical signs are seen anywhere from 8 hours to 5 days after the bite occurs.

Tick paralysis is not contagious to other pets or humans. The disease can only be contracted through a tick bite.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Tick Paralysis in Cats

Unfortunately, there is no definitive test for tick paralysis. Diagnosis is based on clinical signs, the discovery of an engorged tick on the pet, and improvement/resolution of clinical signs with the removal of the tick and/or treatment with an anti-tick product.

Physical examination can reveal respiratory and neurologic signs, such as:

  • Fast, labored, rasping, snoring, or obstructed breathing

  • Trouble swallowing

  • Weakness and lack of coordination

  • Change in meow

Routine blood work may show evidence of concurrent tick-borne disease but does not indicate tick paralysis. While imaging, such as X-rays and CT scans, cannot confirm tick paralysis, it may reveal signs of lung disease that are secondary to tick paralysis.

Treatment of Tick Paralysis in Cats

The first step in treating tick paralysis is a thorough physical examination and removal of all ticks. In furry pets, this may require shaving to ensure that all ticks are removed. The ticks need to be removed in full, including all their mouth parts, to ensure there is no further toxin release. If you can, take a picture of any ticks removed from your pet; your veterinarian may find it helpful in identifying the species.

Supportive therapy, depending on the clinical signs that develop, may include:

  • Fluid therapy

  • Physical therapy

  • Assisted feeding

  • Urinary bladder management

  • Antibiotics, oxygen therapy, and occasionally mechanical ventilation if lung disease is also present

Tick preventatives are essential to avoiding future infestations and additional episodes of tick paralysis.

Recovery and Management of Tick Paralysis in Cats

In general, with appropriate care and removal of ticks, the prognosis for tick paralysis is good. Most deaths are from respiratory arrest secondary to low oxygen levels or aspiration pneumonia. After your cat recovers, appropriate tick prevention is needed for life, and some cats may require physical therapy for a period to regain their muscle strength.

Prevention of Tick Paralysis in Cats

To prevent tick paralysis from occurring or recurring, use appropriate monthly tick preventatives. You can also regularly check your cat for ticks and keep your cat indoors to avoid exposure. Please contact your veterinarian to discuss which preventative would be most appropriate.

Tick Paralysis in Cats FAQs

Can a cat survive tick paralysis?

Yes, with appropriate treatment.

How do I know if my cat has tick paralysis?

If your cat is experiencing worrisome respiratory symptoms, weakness, or lack of coordination—or you have found an engorged tick on your cat—please contact your vet to have your cat evaluated.

How long does it take for a cat to recover from tick paralysis?

Once the tick has been removed, symptoms can improve within hours. Sometimes, however, muscle weakness can persist for weeks.

How do you get rid of a tick on a cat?

To remove ticks yourself, use a tick removal tool or a fast-acting topical tick preventative. If you have difficulty, contact your veterinarian as soon as possible to see if they can remove it.

References

Morgan, Rhea. Tick Paralysis (Feline). Veterinary Information Network, Dec. 12, 2014.  http://www.vin.com/members/cms/project/defaultadv1.aspx?pid=607&id=6581339

Featured Image: iStock.com/S_Kazeo


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