By Dr. Becker
According to parasitologists, 2013 will see an explosion of tick populations in many areas of the U.S.
Two types of ticks are especially problematic: the deer tick, also called the black-legged tick, and the Lone Star tick. These ticks have now invaded about half the U.S., and in many states both are present. Together, these species are associated with nearly a dozen tick-borne illnesses, including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, and babesiosis.
According to Dr. Susan Little of Oklahoma State University, a veterinary parasite expert:
“There has been an increase in tick populations over decades, but in the last 10 years, they have really exploded. And it is not just more ticks, it is more ticks in more places.”
Recently, Dr. Little participated in an experiment in which 10 healthy Beagles were walked in a tick-infested area every day for eight weeks.
During the eight-week period, each Beagle attracted an average of 100 ticks and every dog developed antibodies to ehrlichia and rickettsia. (The researchers didn’t allow the dogs to become ill.) According to Dr. Little, these results indicate that risk of a tick-borne infection is 100 percent.
There are a number of factors that can increase the spread of ticks, including mild winters, urban sprawl, an increase in deer and coyote populations, and pesticide resistance.
Mild U.S. Winters Increase Tick Populations
Very cold winters spanning several months have traditionally killed off tick populations in the U.S. Ticks are hardy creatures. It takes lengthy periods of low temperatures around 10°F to accomplish a winter kill of tick populations. If daytime temperatures reach 40°F, even if it’s much colder overnight, ticks can remain active.
In the last 20 years or so, winter weather across the country has grown milder. As a result, ticks once found only in the southern states have moved north.
Even snowfall doesn’t insure a tick die-off, because ticks can survive under a blanket of snow. And there are species of ticks, like the black-legged tick, that actually thrive in cold weather.
Increase in Certain Wildlife Populations and Urban Sprawl Also Play a Role
Another huge factor in the spread of ticks is wildlife. Birds, coyotes and deer transport ticks from one location to another, and once they are dropped off in a new area, smaller animals like mice, chipmunks and shrews move them around in the new location.
Conservation programs have dramatically increased populations of white-tailed deer in the U.S. In addition, coyote populations have also seen huge increases in the last few decades. Coyotes prey on the red fox, and the red fox preys on rodents that harbor infectious ticks. Where coyotes are present, red fox are not, and tick populations flourish.
In addition, as urban sprawl continues to encroach on wildlife habitats, people and pets increase their potential for exposure to ticks.
Another Factor: Overuse of Increasingly Toxic Tick Preventives
Another major contributor to our tick problem is that these ectoparasites have developed resistance to pesticides. For several decades we’ve overused increasingly toxic tick control products, and ticks have evolved defenses against them.
I routinely see dogs in my practice that have been receiving monthly doses of pesticides for years, yet they still test positive for tick-borne illness. Clearly, these preventives aren’t all they’re cracked up to be. They may reduce the number of ticks that attach to your dog, but those that do latch on can still transmit disease.
Another reason tick-borne diseases are on the rise is that insects other than ticks – specifically mosquitoes -- have been found to transmit some of these potentially lethal infections.
Tips for Preventing a Tick-borne Infection
- When flea and tick season arrives, check for ticks daily, and don’t overlook areas of your pet’s body where ticks can hide, like between the toes, the underside of the toes, in the earflaps and around the tail base. If you’re ever unsure whether you’re looking at a tick or some other bump on your dog, get out a magnifying glass and look for the telltale sign of a tick – legs.
- Remember that ticks must be attached to your dog for at least 24 hours in order for disease-causing bacteria to be transmitted from the tick to your pet. That’s why daily tick checks and removing ticks immediately is a huge part of reducing your dog’s risk of acquiring a tick-borne disease. This is hands-down the safest and entirely non-toxic method of tick prevention.
- If you find a tick on your dog, be sure to remove it correctly. Don’t use your bare hands. People can become infected by handling or crushing an infected tick. Wear gloves, or even better, use a tick-removing tool.
- Grasp the tick very close to your pet’s skin with a tick removal tool or a pair of tweezers. Carefully pull the tick’s body away from the skin. Once it’s off, flush it down the toilet. Then disinfect your dog’s skin with soapy water or diluted povidone iodine (Betadine). Disinfect the area really well and monitor it for the next few days. If you notice any irritation or inflammation of the skin, you should contact your veterinarian.
- Have your dog tested for tick-borne diseases about three to four weeks after removing a tick. The type of test to ask your vet for is the SNAP 4Dx or Accuplex test, which is a screening blood test. If you don’t have the 4Dx or Accuplex test done, you’ll want to watch your dog closely for several months for any signs of loss of appetite, lethargy, changes in gait, fever, intermittent limping – all the symptoms of potential tick-borne diseases. And keep in mind that waiting until a dog exhibits symptoms isn’t the most proactive approach.
Checking your dog externally for ticks and having his blood checked regularly (I recommend every 6 months) for internal, silent infections is the very best approach to keeping your pet safe from potentially devastating tick-borne diseases.