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‘Tick paralysis’ threatens pets and people

JULIA BRENNAN Pookie at a town landing on silver Beach.
JULIA BRENNAN Pookie at a town landing on silver Beach.

Something was seriously wrong.

My 15-pound dog, Pookie, wobbled around the floor of the sunny examining room, unable to get her legs to move as they should. Her usual effortless gait had been replaced by a swaying stagger that would be comical if it wasn’t so terrifying. She collapsed, panting, watched by the veterinarian and his assistant, whose expressions had grown somber.

It was our second visit in two days to the North Fork Animal Hospital’s Shelter Island office on North Ferry Road. Dr. Robert Pisciotta had examined Pookie the day before when my husband, Eddie, and I brought her in because she was limping. He’d found no sign of injury then and agreed with our supposition that she may have strained a muscle while panicking during a thunderstorm. We’d left with an anti-inflammatory and orders to keep her quiet.

Her rapid overnight decline had him worried. She had tested positive for Lyme, though the test might’ve picked up a long resolved exposure and her symptoms did not fit the profile of it or other common tick-borne illnesses. But, he said, her paralysis might nonetheless be caused by a tick.

In rare cases, certain female ticks while feeding may inject a powerful neurotoxin that can cause paralysis that begins with the rear legs and moves forward. If we could find the tick and remove it, he said, she should recover almost immediately.

I had never heard of tick paralysis and found it odd on that gorgeous June day to be hoping we’d find a tick.
Pookie, a 3-year-old Tibetan terrier, is vaccinated against Lyme disease and gets monthly topical flea and tick treatments. Her long, thick coat, cut shorter for summer, requires regular extensive grooming, and in our latest session with the combs and brushes, I hadn’t encountered any ticks.

Sadly, a thorough going-over by Dr. Pisciotta and assistant, Gabi Mysliborski, also yielded no ticks. With tick paralysis ruled out, the alternatives were grim. She might have a brain tumor, he said, or any of a number of other neurological maladies.

“If she were my dog,” I recall him saying, “I’d want her to go to a specialist.”

There was no time to waste. If the paralysis moved to her diaphragm, it could prove fatal. Dr. Pisciotta called veterinary specialty clinics until he found one with a neurologist available to see her. We got an appointment for that afternoon at Long Island Veterinary Specialists in Plainview.

When we arrived, the veterinary technicians there searched again, but found no tick. After obtaining my approval in advance for the costs, Dr. Ann Bilderback, a specialist in veterinary neurology, ran several tests.

A few hours later, she made a tentative diagnosis of “coonhound paralysis,” a sometimes deadly disease that she said causes long-lasting but not permanent paralysis in dogs that may have come in contact with raccoon saliva.

We often see raccoons near our Silver Beach home, and we have them at our primary residence in Nassau County. Perhaps Pookie had picked up something a raccoon had been chewing, or drank water from a source used by raccoons.
Dr. Bilderback said Pookie’s condition appeared to be stable, but might worsen. She would require round-the-clock home nursing.

Back on the Island, a sleepless night followed. Pookie’s muscles were slack and the paralysis became so advanced she was nearly immobilized. I had been directed to turn her every few hours so she wouldn’t develop sores. Shifting her limp body was heartbreaking. And she had an episode of breathlessness that resolved quickly, but rattled me.

When Dr. Bilderback called the next morning to ask that we take Pookie to the local clinic to repeat a test that had come back inconclusive, I was hopeful a new result might point to a less devastating condition.

The Island clinic was closed, so we headed to the one in Southold. On the ferry, I was rubbing Pookie’s chin when I spotted it. An engorged dog tick in the thick fur just below her left eye. At the clinic, Dr. Pisciotta pulled it off and set Pookie down on the floor. We watched, amazed, as she got up and walked, somewhat wobbly, out of the examining room.

Within two days, she was fully recovered.

The veterinarians we saw said tick paralysis is very rare, but it should be on the list of things to watch for. According to the Centers for Disease Control, it can affect people, too. The CDC’s website carries a harrowing story of a 2-year-old girl who was taken to the emergency room because of difficulty walking.

Within several hours, she was drooling and breathing rapidly. “A nurse incidentally detected an engorged tick on the girl’s hairline by an ear and removed the tick,” and within hours the girl was rebounding and was released, the report said.

Shelter Island physician, Dr. Nathaneal Desire, said he knows of no local cases.

Tick paralysis occurs worldwide in several species of tick and in North America is most common between April and June, the CDC reports.

For people, the CDC says tick paralysis may be prevented “by the use of repellants on skin and permethrin-containing acaricides on clothing, careful examination of potentially exposed persons for ticks and prompt removal of ticks.”

For pets, the veterinarians who treated my little dog said tick-borne illnesses may be prevented by the regular application of spot-on treatments, although they don’t work in every case and did not in ours. I asked whether shaving the dog would help, but was advised against it as a thick coat provides a dog that has one with insulation needed to regulate its body temperature.

Pookie is her old self again, waking me at dawn with a low “gruff” that indicates it is time to set out on the first of our many, long daily rambles. I call her my personal trainer and know that her insistence that we go out, no matter the weather, keeps us both healthy. Her brush with calamity has made me even more grateful for her presence.