Paralysis ticks and the orphan calves – part 2 of a long story

by Liz Beavis
In part one of this long story, I explained how we brought home the first weak braford calf and struggled with whether or not to give him milk, we thought he was just weak, and if we could get him to eat more he would get better.  At the same time we were keeping an eye on another calf that we had noticed was skinny and often separated from the herd.  We were worried that she also didn't have a mother, but she seemed to still be doing ok.  Then one day we couldn't find her anywhere, and the next day she was lying in the grass with the rest of the herd but couldn't get up, so we brought her home to Nanango too (this time in the dog box on the ute, not the back of the 4WD).


She was worse than the first calf and couldn't stand at all, so we called the vet the next day (having brought her home on a Sunday, and not wanting to pay weekend call-out fees, and not realising that it was urgent).  The vet rolled her over and found a large tick on her belly.  The vet said her symptoms suggested that she had been bitten by multiple paralysis ticks, which is why she couldn't stand.  The vet said that she probably wouldn't make it, but we wanted to try and help the calf, so we asked the vet to treat both of them.  Unfortunately the vet turned out to be right.


I had never heard of paralysis ticks until I came to Australia, turns out it’s a native, like kangaroos, or maybe more like deadly red belly black snakes and red back spiders, the kind of natives that I don't like.  It lives along the east coast of Australiaand other native animals seem to be relatively immune to its potent neurotoxin that gradually paralyses the host.  We regularly see warnings on junky TV programs about checking your pets for paralysis ticks, and occasionally we get paranoid and buy a stinky tick collar for the dogs, but I had no idea they could affect cattle as well.  We had definitely heard of cattle ticks, which cause tick fever, and our property is rated “tick free”, which only applies to the imported cattle ticks, not the native paralysis ticks. 


The surviving calf, standing up and enjoying milk from a bucket

Finally we knew what was wrong with the calves, they had paralysis tick poisoning.  The first calf seemed to be improving, so he had obviously lost the ticks just in time, the second calf got worse, losing control of her neck, and finally dying a few days after we bought her home.  I know, another dead calf!  We haven’t had an easy time lately!


Things we learnt:


  • We have paralysis ticks at Kumbia and need to be careful that the dogs (and even humans, especially small ones) don’t get bitten, we need to be appropriately dressed when we’re in the long grass/bush land where the ticks might be waiting to jump onto a new host.


  • The only way to be sure that all the ticks are off the calves is to use one of a couple of nasty organophosphate pesticides.  We bought one and poured it over both calves so we at least knew that the ticks were dead (it can be hard to find all of them in their fur).  We will use this pesticide on any future weak calves as soon as we find them, just in case, the sooner the ticks come off, the less poison they can pump into the calves and the better chance they have of recovery.


  • The pesticide only lasts for a week, so its not a sustainable method of prevention, you can’t get the cattle into the yards to be covered in OPs once a week when you’re trying to be organic!  Fortunately the herd should build up immunity to the toxin after the big cows have been bitten a few times, and they should pass this on to their calves. 


  • We don’t know if there were paralysis ticks at the property that we bought the cattle from.  Our two weak calves either didn't have mothers to pass on the immunity or were just particularly weak and susceptible to the toxin.  We are waiting to see if any of the other calves are affected, so far they all look very fat and happy, except for one skinny one that we cornered and rolled over.  He also had a tick, so we doused him with the chemical, and he's still alive, so must have got to him in time.  We are still wondering why the calves were so weak and skinny in the first place, its not clear if the ticks  cause the calves to lose weight, but it seems that there is more research into tick poisoning of domestic pets rather than cattle, so possibly it is a symptom, I just haven't read about it.


  • Nursing an affected calf – the most important thing is to keep the calf upright using hay bales or blocks of wood, so that it doesn't roll onto its side, which is bad for its rumen.  If they can’t get to water, make sure that they are hydrated.  The vet stuck a tube into each of their stomachs and gave them electrolyte solution.  This is not recommended without training, as you can end up with fluid in their lungs if you don’t know what you’re doing, but you can also bottle feed electrolytes.  The powder isn’t cheap, I made up my own using dextrose, salt and baking soda (recipe here).  If the calf can stand, help him to get up and walk around, so that he’s not lying down all the time.  Eventually the calf should recover to the point that they can almost get up by themselves, and then one day they will be wondering around the yard as if nothing ever happened.


  • As I said in the last post, make sure they have shelter and it doesn't hurt to give some Vit C and Vit B12 injections as well!


The calf that survived is still very skinny.  He drinks 2 L of milk morning and afternoon, and munches on lucerne all day, but we can still see all his bones.  I bought him calf raiser pellets and he has finally got used to eating a scoop of them each day as well.  Any other ideas for beefing up a calf?


see how skinny he is!
I'll write more on paralysis tick management for our entire herd in a coming post.... we have some other ideas for long term management that doesn't involve nasty chemicals.

Did I miss anything?  How are your calves doing?


  • Guilia

    Could I please have the name of the chemical you used to kill the paralysis ticks? We are on a rental small acreage and my 2 bobby calves keep getting numerous paralysis ticks on them. We have manually removed them when they were younger and have used Genesis pour on as well. But this morning I noticed they have picked up numerous ticks over night. Nothing on google gives me a suggestion for 2 calves rather than a mob of cattle. It is not realistic to buy it in quantities to treat a large herd. Please help me.

  • Anna Fearnley

    Hi – I read your post about your calves with tick paralysis. I am a vet and have treated many pets with paralysis. I also have a beef cattle farm in an area which is paralysis tick heaven. I have lots of experience (unfortunately) treating calves and weaned cattle that are paralysed. Over the past few years we have managed to work out how to nurse them successfully. Take a look at our website and click on the information button. Hope our experience and ideas can help :) Cheers Anna

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