Cell invasion by apicomplexan pathogens such as the malaria parasite and Toxoplasma is accompanied by extensive proteolysis of zoite surface proteins (ZSPs) required for attachment and penetration. Although there is still little known about the proteases involved, a conceptual framework is emerging for the roles of proteolysis in cell invasion. Primary processing of ZSPs, which includes the trimming of terminal peptides or segmentation into multiple fragments, is proposed to activate these adhesive ligands for tight binding to host receptors. Secondary processing, which occurs during penetration, results in the shedding of ZSPs by one of two mechanistically distinct ways, shaving or capping. Resident surface proteins are typically shaved from the surface whereas adhesive ligands mobilized from intracellular secretory vesicles are capped to the posterior end of the parasite before being shed during the final steps of penetration. Intriguingly, recent studies have revealed that ZSPs can be released either by being cleaved adjacent to the membrane anchor or actually within the membrane itself. Mounting evidence suggests that intramembrane cleavage is catalysed by one or more integral membrane serine proteases of the Rhomboid family and we propose that several malaria adhesive ligands may be potential substrates for these enzymes. We also discuss the evidence that the key reason for ZSP shedding during invasion is to break the connection between parasite surface ligands and host receptors. The sequential proteolytic events associated with invasion by pathogenic protozoa may represent vulnerable pathways for the future development of synergistic anti-protozoal therapies.