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

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 Australia and 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?


  1. How awful, what nasty little beasts! I am sorry about the loss of your calf but am glad to see one on the mend. Huge wishes for a speedy recovery xx

  2. I've had about the same luck, two have died and two are healthy as. They were all boy dairy calves.
    Thanks for the recipe for electrolytes. The last one that died had blood scours, yet I didn't see any signs of scouring before that, and she was 6 weeks old!. I did the electrolytes and probiotic, but every feed she seem to take less.Do you know much about blood scours?
    We get the nasty paralysis tick here, just pull one off my chest and one off my boys neck, both are very sore, we use a homeopathy medicene which works and I here it works well on animals. I dose the calves in frontline cow one, it last 21 days. People say you only need to do it till they are 6months old, then they can cope fine with them. Also the farmers say around here that if the heifer in calf gets a P. tick she will slip the calf. Found a huge full female P.tick on our kelpie when we moved up here, I had being treating her with frontline, and she was due that day for a another hit. But she showed no symtoms. We were told later that kelpies had natural imunity as they have dingo line in them. Not sure about that though.

  3. Wow you have had a bit of a rough trot. Hope your skinny calf makes it. It sounds like you are doing all you can. I got your seeds on Monday so will keep you posted on how they go.

  4. We also have issues with paralysis ticks and have been told the best way to avoid problems is to calve in a very clean paddock - i.e. no lantana etc., around where blady grass will grow (perfect tick environment) and also to plan so the cattle calve in Autumn when ticks are not such a problem. Unfortunately, we only have 8 mums and one bull and keeping him away from the girls is not really an option for us. We also put a small amount of cydectin on the calves and we check them daily. We have lost one calf this year, who was 12 months old but not as robust as the others. We have also tried homeopathic drops on a calf a few years ago but the vet and the electrolytes was what worked. Best thing for dogs is daily checking with hands - we have golden retrievers so have to be extra cautious. Hope this helps.

  5. Thanks Rachy, wish I could bring them inside, like your sick chicken!

    Busygnomes, fortunately I haven't had to deal with blood scours, I would have though probiotics and electrolytes would be the way to go though, sorry it didn't work out. Do get yourself some vit C and B and some needles, can't hurt to try, Pat Coleby reckons it works for everything. We don't usually have much trouble with the beef cattle if they stay on their mothers, those poor dairy calves don't have a great start after you separate them, poor things (I hate that side of the dairy industry the more I spend time with calves, they need their mums!). Anyway, good luck and I hope you avoid the ticks, I had one on my back the other day, but lucky it came off clean and didn't hurt.

    Thanks for the anonymous advice too. Sounds when we have our paddocks worked out a bit better this will be part of the system.


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