The Pin-Chin-Sky Loop is a beautiful, yet challenging experience that includes significant elevation gain and loss along with technical terrain. There are some breaks from the challenge, of course, and those include calm stretches of shady forest along creeks, and our nemesis, long stretches of overgrown grassy trail.
As with any seasoned hikers, our major concern within these areas are snakes. This is the Southeastern US, of course… it’s snake country, Y’all!
I’ve always viewed ticks as more of a subject of disdain than anything really life-threatening. I mean, logically I know the potential is there for Lyme Disease, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, general infection, etc. Tick paralysis never really crossed our minds.
When it came to any actual perceived risk, though, my rose-colored glasses were always on. Our experience over the past weekend changed everything!
Our backpacking trip started with a night at Turnipseed Campground on Sunday 7/29 so we could get an early start leaving from Adams Gap on 7/30. Everything went off without a hitch (just kidding, but that’s for another post). 12 miles on the 30th and another 11 on the 31st, and we were exhausted and back at the car, heading home.
The real story begins.
Based on the number of ticks we had pulled off of ourselves during the trip, I knew I’d have my work cut out for me with these little long-haired dogs once we got back home. I checked both of them every night after work, and pulled off more ticks than I can count from each dog. It’s a bad season for them, from what I understand.
Just to provide a little background information: each dog has worn a Seresto collar since April, which places the collar well within its functional limits of 8 months. This collar, although aimed at flea control (for which it has been flawless on both dogs), is also indicated for tick control. I thought I’d give it a shot this year, since Frontline Plus no longer works for either of the dogs, and my vet has told me on more than one occasion that it is simply ineffective these days.
Porter cannot tolerate Nexgard at all, so I took that option off the table and went for the Seresto. Since both are senior dogs, I always hesitate to try something new on them, but both have tolerated the collar very well, so I decided to just be extra vigilant on tick picking after each trip.
After this particular trip, I noticed that roughly 40% of the ticks I found on Porter were already dead. That’s not great, but for a dog that has already had an adverse reaction to Nexgard, it’s acceptable. For Hagrid, it was a different story. Maybe 20% of the ticks I found on him were dead. At the rate I pulled ticks off of these dogs, that’s really not good. The rest of the week was normal as can be, until it wasn’t.
Timeline of our experience.
I got up as usual to get ready for work. The dogs went out and I noticed that Hagrid looked a little wobbly. This is unusual, despite him being nearly 16 years old. Then again, we did complete the toughest hike he’s been a part of just a few days prior- I chalked it up to delayed onset muscle soreness.
I got a call from Jack saying that the unsteadiness had rapidly progressed to stumbling and loss of balance. Panicked, I went home immediately to find an emergency vet, as my usual office is an hour away and is closed after 12:30 on Saturdays.
We found a highly rated emergency vet and Hagrid got an exam and bloodwork. All bloodwork came back completely normal. The vet briefly discussed tick paralysis (and found 3-4 ticks during the exam), but diagnosed Idiopathic Vestibular Disease. This is a disorder that is somewhat common in old dogs, and affects the inner ear to the extent that the dog has trouble maintaining balance. The condition normally resolves itself within 4-5 days. They sent us home with an anti-nausea medication and we were instructed to let him rest.
Hagrid has never really been one to lose appetite, and he ate and drank and took his pill without issue that night. He still looked pretty wobbly, but the symptoms didn’t seem to progress.
The next day
Hagrid was completely unable to stand. There was no muscle tone, and when I picked him up it was like picking up a 20-pound wet noodle. He wouldn’t accept water and would barely eat a treat- this, of course, was VERY unusual.
I called the emergency vet, who recommended bringing Hagrid back to keep him overnight until the neurologist returned Monday and could give a neurological exam/tests. We hemmed and hawed on this for a bit, because honestly, what are they going to be able to tell us without the neurologist there?
I was an absolute mess. Jack reminded me of the possibility of tick paralysis and encouraged me to keep looking. I said “But the vets already looked for them! They found a few, I’m sure that’s all that were left. I think he’s dying.” I had a good cry and tried to prepare myself for the worst.
I figured what the hell, I’ll try to find some ticks… really go over this dog head to toe, and then do it again, and again. I got the comb and tweezers out and started checking.
The real-deal, Hail Mary tick checking is done. 11 more ticks in a Ziploc bag to take to my regular vet on Monday, just in case he can test them or do something. I found 4 of them just between his toes! How could I have missed so many when I had been looking every day?
Time for another serious check, just in case…. this one turned up nothing. I removed his Seresto collar, on the off chance that it could have caused neurological side effects after 4 months- another Hail Mary.
Hagrid started drinking water for the first time since Saturday, and even ate a half portion of his dinner. I pulled him up to a sitting position, and his front legs were strong enough to support his weight for a few seconds. This doesn’t sound like much, but it was a huge improvement!
The third tick check of the day revealed a big nasty one on the back of his left leg, close to the base of his tail. Once again, I was shocked that I missed it after multiple head to toe checks. Into the bag it went.
Hagrid crawled about 2 feet across the bed to get a french fry. I was ecstatic!
Hagrid stood up on his own! I carried him down the deck stairs to pee outside, and he even took a few steps. Great sign! He went to bed in his favorite closet shortly after.
As Hagrid is profoundly deaf, I tapped him to wake him up for morning pee time. To my surprise, he got right up, walked down the stairs, and did all his business, with no help!
Finally, my regular vet was able to see Hagrid! By this time, I had no doubt that his actual diagnosis would be tick paralysis, but I wanted him to get a checkup anyway because research told me that tick paralysis can cause heart arrhythmia.
I had a Ziploc bag of 12 nasty ticks, just in case, but as I suspected it would have been prohibitively expensive to send them for analysis so they weren’t needed. My vet listened to Hagrid’s heart and confirmed that there was no arrhythmia.
I described the backpacking trip, and my vet was shocked that such an old guy could tough it out for 23 miles! He actually said that Hagrid is one of the healthiest 15-year-old dogs he has ever seen.
I left with a 7 month supply of Nexgard (Hagrid has had it before and tolerated it well, Porter will stick to Seresto for now), and an off-label use of Capstar. This is officially indicated only for fleas, but may help with any remaining ticks. I’d say that I got them all, but if this awful experience has taught me anything, it’s that you never really know.
As I’m writing this post, we’ve been home from the vet for about 5 hours now. Hagrid has begged for Popeye’s chicken, snuck out of the garage to meet the new neighbor children, and just generally been his wonderful pain-in-the-ass self.
I will never again underestimate the potential nastiness of a tick bite, in dogs OR humans. Please remember to ALWAYS check your dog, and yourself for ticks. This includes between the toes and around the pads!
If you have a dog that is able to tolerate Nexgard (dogs generally do very well on this, I just have a rare exception with Porter), it is definitely worth the cost for the peace of mind.
If your dog does NOT tolerate Nexgard or other preventatives, consider buying a dose of Capstar after your tick-infested hike just in case- it is indicated for fleas only, so tick control is technically off-label use, but my vet says that it can help with ticks as well. At any rate, it’s 12 bucks.
And humans- tick paralysis is very rare, but can happen to us too! Be vigilant and be safe! Tick paralysis in humans is most common in children and for some reason, young girls are the most susceptible.