GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The tick population continues to grow in Michigan and so does the risk for several diseases: not only for you, but also for your pet.
Ticks carry many germs and can cause several diseases in both humans and pets. Lyme disease is the most well-known, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention identify 16 diseases passed on by ticks in the United States.
Here’s everything you need to know about ticks, tick-borne diseases, and how to keep your family and your pets safe.
WHY ARE TICK POPULATIONS BOOMING?
Over the last few years, researchers have noticed that tick populations are growing and expanding their range. There are several reasons why, including climate change.
Ticks are exotherms, which means their bodies don’t maintain a consistent internal temperature like mammals. That means ticks are highly sensitive to temperature shifts and can be killed off in a cold winter. Mild winters have allowed some ticks to survive and boost their numbers. A mild winter can also speed up a tick’s lifecycle from three years to two, speeding up spawning rates.
But climate change isn’t the only factor. According to Dr. Thomas Mather, an entomologist who has been studying ticks for nearly 40 years, it’s not even the primary factor.
“What I think is the biggest driver changing the dynamics of tick populations in America today are white-tailed deer and their adaptability to live (among) people as opposed to staying away from people,” Mather told News 8.
Mather says the tick population is closely tied to the white-tailed deer population and those numbers bear out across hundreds of years of American history.
“When settlers first came, there were extensive forests and deer just didn’t concentrate around people very often (because they would) get shot,” Mather said. “And then we cut down all the forests in the 1700s, 1800s and there was no place for the deer to hide so they just vanished. And the tick problem kind of vanished along with them. Then in the 1920s, reforestation and subsequent development, suburban development, has allowed most kinds of wildlife to habituate to their new environments, which involves people.”
WHAT IS LYME DISEASE?
Lyme disease is the most well-known and most commonly diagnosed tick-borne disease in the United States. But it wasn’t always that way. In fact, Lyme disease wasn’t officially recognized until the 1980s.
Lyme disease gets its name from the community where it was first discovered: Lyme, Connecticut. In the 1970s, several adults and children were dealing with some puzzling medical issues — headaches, swollen joints, chronic fatigue and, in some cases, paralysis. They all had a couple of things in common: a strange rash and a confirmed tick bite.
In 1981, a scientist was able to find a direct link between Lyme disease and a strain of bacteria carried by the blacklegged tick. From there, experts were able to develop a series of antibiotics to help treat the symptoms.
Now, an estimated 500,000 cases of Lyme disease are diagnosed each year, and scientists continue to learn more about it and how it is transmitted.
In humans, the most common symptoms are ongoing fever, headache, fatigue and a notable rash that looks like a bull’s-eye, with a bright red spot at the site of the tick bite and an expanded red circle.
Most cases of Lyme disease can be handled by a round of antibiotics; however, some people continue to report symptoms even after treatment. Those cases are called chronic Lyme disease or post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome. There is no known cure and no known reason why antibiotics work for some people but not others.
WHAT ABOUT MY PETS?
Lyme disease isn’t only a threat to humans. It’s a threat to pets, too, specifically dogs.
Dogs will show similar symptoms as those humans experience, but not all of them. Dogs will run a fever and show fatigue. You should also look for joint swelling, loss of appetite or general discomfort, as if their muscles are stiff or sore. One symptom that you won’t find? The red bull’s-eye rash.
While people typically show symptoms within a few days of a tick bite, symptoms in dogs show up much later. According to the American Kennel Club, dogs don’t typically show symptoms until two to five months after the tick bite.
The major concern with dogs isn’t Lyme disease itself, but what can happen down the line. Unlike humans, Lyme disease in dogs can lead to kidney disease, which can be deadly.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR?
So you found a tick. What do you do? Mather says it is important to stay calm and take notes.
“Take a picture of it,” Mather told News 8. “Don’t just throw it out or flush it down the toilet. Send (the picture) to Tick Spotters and they’ll tell you (what kind of tick it is).”
Tick Spotters is a crowdsourced program run by the University of Rhode Island. You can send in your photo of the tick and answer a series of questions. Experts can tell you what type of tick you are dealing with and what risk, if any, you may face for infections.
To get infected by most tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease, a lot of factors must line up just right. To start, Lyme disease is only transmitted by one tick species: the blacklegged tick. A tick needs to be attached for at least 36 hours to transmit bacteria. Finally, not every blacklegged tick is infected, so a blacklegged tick bite doesn’t automatically mean you’ll contract Lyme disease.
There are several things you can do to avoid tick bites. To start, it’s important to understand ticks and how they bite.
First, avoid tall grasses. Ticks tend to live in shady, wet areas that are close to the ground — places like shrubs or tall grass. Ticks cannot fly or jump; they can only crawl. To find a host, they will use their hind legs to hold themselves on something like a piece of grass and use their front legs to grab you as you brush past.
Second, once a tick has hitched a ride on a new host, it will try to climb up. Every tick wants to get as close to the head as possible.
“’Why do they do that?’ Because the skin is more vascularized, so they’re going to be more successful finding a blood meal there,” Mather said.
But you don’t always find ticks on your head. They are usually found in restricted areas.
“The thought was (ticks) like dark, most places on your body. It turns out ticks don’t like anything necessarily,” Mather said. “But what happens is all of these dark, moist places are places where either your skin folds or your clothing restricts the tick’s movement, like your crotch or your underarms or a woman’s bra strap, or something like that.”
The same goes for dogs. The best place to check your dog for ticks is under its collar.
“I can’t tell you how many ticks that we see that are misshapen because they’ve lodged themselves under the collar. And as they’ve continued to engorge, the collar has restricted the way the blood comes into the tick and you get these kind of lollipop-looking ticks from under the dog’s collar,” Mather said.
PREVENTING TICK BITES
There are three common strategies to avoid tick bites: avoid tick-infested areas, use bug repellents and treat your clothes and outdoor gear.
If you plan to be outdoors for long periods of time, consider treating your clothes with permethrin.
Permethrin is a common insecticide used to treat crops. There are many permethrin solutions on the market, including sprays that can be applied directly to clothes or camping gear. Before you camp, you should spray your clothes in a well-ventilated area and allow them to dry. The permethrin should last on the fabric through several washes while keeping you tick-free. You can also purchase clothes pre-treated with permethrin.
The same can be said for dogs: try to keep them out of tick-infested areas and apply safe tick repellants. There is also an FDA-approved Lyme disease vaccine available for dogs older than 8 weeks.
Equally as important as taking the proper precautions is to do a tick check. First, check your clothing, pets and outdoor gear for ticks. If you have a lot of clothes and only a little time, you can also run your clothes in the dryer for 10 minutes on high heat to kill any possible ticks.
The CDC also recommends taking a shower. Showering within two hours of coming in from the outdoors has been shown to reduce risk. It’s an easy way to knock off any unattached ticks and is an ideal spot to perform a tick check.
A tick check is just that — checking for ticks. Using a mirror, scan your body for any ticks. The CDC says there are seven common bite spots: under the arms, around the ears, inside the belly button, back of the knees, in and around hair, in between legs and around the waist.