Gazette Vet: Ticks

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One area where veterinary medicine intersects with human medicine regularly here in Virginia is with tick-borne diseases. Because we see with this problem in pets commonly, I can tell you that people have a lot of misconceptions about ticks, so I am going to use this month’s column to clarify some points about ticks and tick-borne disease. All points are valid for both our pets and ourselves.  

Ever since I was a little kid, I hated ticks. I still remember being a horrified 7-year-old and my mom taking an attached tick off my head. That feeling of some insect actually being attached to me! Ugh!  Back then, we didn’t have as much to worry about with ticks (well, at least that we knew about…).  But here in 2018, tick-borne disease is a growing and important concern. So, here we go with the misconceptions:

Now that it’s winter, I don’t have to worry about ticks.  

Tick disease is most definitely a year-round risk here in Virginia. Those suckers are tough! If it is currently 20 degrees outside and there has been a cold spell, your risk of picking up ticks is quite low. However, when it is just above freezing, those little devils are ready to start moving and feeding!

When it is below freezing outside, ticks move down into the leaf litter/soil to protect themselves from the cold. But in Virginia, our winters are mild and our cold weather is bipolar. Sometimes we have weeks where it never gets above 32 degrees, but more commonly we will have a short cold spell followed by a warm spell. This keeps the surface of the soil relatively warm and a comfortable place for ticks to live out their winter.  

I have pulled ticks off my dogs after hiking in the snow, and because we regularly like to hike in the woods and sometimes go off trail, they are often walking through the soft soil and leaf litter of the forest. If your dog sticks 100 percent to manicured grass, your risk is lower, of course, but overall, most of us need to be just as concerned about ticks in January as we are in June.

Seed ticks are a certain type of tick.

Most of you have heard of the term “seed tick,” and with all of the different species of ticks, it starts to get confusing as to what types of ticks there are and which ones we need to be concerned about.  We do have several different species of tick in Virginia (more on this below), and they all follow a very similar life cycle. 

Adult ticks lay eggs that hatch in the spring/summer to the first stage of ticks called the larva stage.  These are not larva like worms, they are indeed just very, very small ticks—smaller than what we consider “seed ticks.” Larva ticks have 6 legs and are close in size to the period at the end of this sentence. That is unsettling because unfortunately these nymphs can transmit tick disease to people and pets, and they are very difficult to see. Larva ticks typically feed on smaller animals like mice.  Our family has experienced several times over the years occasions when one of us got into an area of woods heavy with larva ticks and had about 50 nymphs attached! Ahhhh!!!

Larva ticks spend all year trying to feed and survive and eventually in the following winter/spring molt into the next lovely stage of tick, the nymph tick. These are what we often consider “seed ticks,” because they are about the size of a small sesame seed. These little suckers also spread all the diseases. Every tick species has this form, so when someone describes finding a “seed tick,” it’s just a nymph form of whatever tick species it happened to be.

Finally, after another year of feeding as a nymph, they will molt into an adult tick. So, whenever you find an adult tick attached, you can marvel about how that tick is over two years old and is only one of hundreds of small nymph ticks that have made it all the way to the adult stage. “Great job, buddy, but now you’re going to die!”  

Ticks look very different after they have fed on a blood meal. Ticks have to be attached for 12 to 48 hours before they can actually start to feed (this time is controversial and likely varies greatly depending on many factors). Engorged ticks often look like plump grey blobs attached to you or your pet. Ticks that haven’t yet fed are still flat and brownish. Because ticks have to start feeding before they can transmit the nasty tick-borne bacteria that live inside their guts, if you get a tick off within the first few hours of attachment, you won’t get any tick-borne diseases. If you find an engorged tick on yourself or your pet, this tick has fed and a call to the doctor/vet would be a smart choice.  

Some people and pets have small allergic reactions to tick bites—even if a tick is removed within 1 hour, the skin around the tick may stay slightly red and itchy for days.

There are some types of ticks you have to worry about more than others.  

We have several different species of ticks here in Virginia, but I’m specifically not going to list them because unfortunately they are all bad. Every tick transmits one or several common tick-borne diseases. The main ones we worry about here are Lyme, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, and Ehrlichiosis. There are many more, as well as the meat allergy problem. So, all ticks are bad. All of them.  

I can just check my dog for ticks, I don’t really need to use a preventative.

Remember those larva ticks and seed ticks? These are easily lost within your dog’s undercoat. Even in thin-coated, light-colored dogs, they are very easy to miss. But a black dog with a thicker coat like my Lab? Good luck. I do my basic tick checks after being in the woods, but I use a monthly tick preventative to make sure any ticks I’ve missed will die.

For people, I recommend showering immediately once you get home from at-risk areas, i.e. hiking in the woods. Once ticks have made it under your jeans, they will often climb up to the groin area where it is warm and cozy. You’re probably not going to search that area thoroughly in your kitchen, so go to the bathroom, strip down, and do a good full-body tick search. If you find ticks—no worries, take them off. Better to find them now than tomorrow.

Tick disease is important whether you are an avid outdoors person or you just let your dog out in your backyard (we regularly find ticks in our fenced in, landscaped, not-near-the-woods backyard).  As much as I respect and awe their natural life cycle and adaptations, if there is one creature I could eliminate from the planet today, it would be the tick. 

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