Tick paralysis in cats is not a common condition, but it can develop, requiring prompt action to save the cat's life. Several species of ticks have a toxin in their saliva that damages the functions of the nerves and causes the cat to become gradually paralyzed.
Initial symptoms often include vomiting, retching, difficulty swallowing (most often noted because the cat will drool saliva), a change in the tone or sound of their meow (because of damage to the vocal cords), and changes in the sizes of the pupils of their eyes.
An affected cat is often wobbly on their hind legs; as the toxin travels though the body, this will progress to the point where the cat is unable to move its back legs. The paralysis will then hit the front legs, and finally it will be unable to lift its head. There may also be a paralysis or weakness in the muscles of the face, meaning the cat can't blink or close its mouths properly. In addition, due to the weakness in the chest muscles, it will struggle to breathe.
If you are concerned about your cat, you must take them to see a vet as soon as you notice any changes. The earlier the condition is caught, the easier it is to treat it and the better the prognosis will be for your pet to make a full recovery.
Your vet will first perform an extensive physical examination, both to assess the level of paralysis and to search for a tick. Finding and removing the tick is vital, as once it has gone and supportive care is given, most cats will make a full recovery.
Vets will also often send the ticks away for identification. This information will give them a better idea of the prognosis and what treatment might be most successful. However, as symptoms of tick paralysis can develop up to a week after a tick bite, in many cases, they have already dropped off the pet. Blood tests will be conducted, as well as X-rays to check the chest, which can be compromised because of the difficulty in breathing.
The initial treatment is likely to involve your cat being placed on an intravenous drip to prevent it from becoming dehydrated and the animal may need to be given oxygen if it is struggling to breathe. Once tick paralysis has been confirmed, or your vet is confident that it is the most likely cause, the vet will give your cat an anti-serum to combat the toxin.
Tick paralysis is an extremely serious condition, and most infected cats will require at least two days of hospitalization and veterinary care to make a full recovery.
It can be difficult to predict if a tick bite will lead to tick paralysis. Only female ticks carry the toxins, but they can't be distinguished from males with the naked eye. While some pets will be infected after only one bite, others won't succumb unless they have several. In addition, although some areas are notorious for containing ticks that have the toxin, not being in a "paralysis region" doesn't mean your cats won't develop the problem.
Therefore, prevention is definitely better than cure for tick bite paralysis. Even if you aren't in an area where tick paralysis is common, if the disease is present in your country, you should protect your pets against ticks. Speak to your vet about the best preventative options for your pet. These can be collars, spot-ons (liquid pesticides applied to a spot), or tablets, all of which are effective and safe.