April Fools’ Day may be here, but the topic of ticks is anything but funny. The Midwest is home to over a dozen tick species, although only a few of these are encountered regularly by people and/or pets and are of notable concern. Nevertheless, the medical concerns posed by some species can be quite significant. Our two most notorious species of ticks in Wisconsin and nearby states are the wood tick (aka American Dog tick) and the deer tick (aka black-legged tick).
The wood tick (Dermacentor variabilis) is perhaps our most commonly encountered tick and adults of this species are fairly noticeable with their relatively large size (~ 1/4 inch long). Wood ticks can be associated with certain human diseases, such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever although the threat of this disease in the Midwest is low. A complication regularly caused by this tick in the field of veterinary medicine is tick paralysis, which is a serious reaction to components of the tick’s saliva in situations where ticks have been attached to pets for extended periods of time.
At the moment, the tick of greatest concern in the Midwest is the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis). This is the species notoriously associated with Lyme disease, although it can also vector anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and other diseases. This tick is noticeably smaller than wood ticks, making them more difficult to spot; adult deer ticks come in at a mere ~ 1/8 inch long. Interestingly, deer ticks are relatively new to the upper Midwest and these ticks weren’t spotted in Wisconsin until the late 1960’s . Fast forward 50 years and deer ticks can be found in nearly every corner of the state. The high rate of infectivity (i.e., percentage of ticks carrying a disease) is worryingly high: approximately 20% of tick nymphs (juveniles) and 40% of adult ticks in Wisconsin are carrying the microorganism responsible for Lyme disease. In certain spots in the state, the rate of infectivity has been documented at closer to 60% in some studies. This high rate of infectivity combined with the recent ubiquity of deer ticks poses significant health risks to residents of the upper Midwest and nearly 30,000 confirmed Lyme disease cases are reported from across the country to the CDC each year. What’s more alarming is that estimates from the CDC suggest that the actual number of Lyme disease cases may be an order of magnitude higher!
So how will ticks and Lyme disease be in Wisconsin this year? Some scientists have predicted high tick and Lyme disease pressure in the eastern US in 2017. While that topic has gotten a lot of attention in the news, this may not be the case in our state. The thought behind the prediction is that high rodent populations (a host for juvenile deer ticks) may bolster deer tick numbers. While this relationship was documented in certain geographic locations in a 2005 study, the relationship didn’t hold up across the board as a general predictor of tick activity and neither did weather patterns. With that said, it’s difficult to get a reliable predictor of tick activity and Lyme disease pressure in a given year. In addition, based on recent field observations by fellow entomologists, rodent populations don’t seem to be bursting at the seams at the moment in Wisconsin. Last year (2016) seemed to be an average tick year in the state and we may be in for more of the same this year.
Regardless of tick numbers, the threat of ticks and Lyme disease is still out there and isn’t something to be ignored. Deer ticks can potentially be encountered anytime of the year that the temperatures are above freezing and the ground isn’t covered with snow. While often thought of as a creature of the deep woods, ticks can also be found in suburban areas near parks and nature preserves, so vigilance is a must—even in your own backyard. Below are some sound tips to help prevent issues with ticks this year:
- Personal Protection: Long sleeved clothes can help prevent ticks from getting to skin. In addition, light-colored clothing can make it easier to spot ticks.
- Repellents: A number of EPA approved repellents (such as DEET) can help repel ticks when properly used. Always consult the product label for important usage instructions (e.g., application to skin vs clothing, how often to reapply). As another consideration, clothing can be treated with certain permethrin products (often sold at outdoor/camping stores) to provide long-term protection from ticks. Outdoor clothing impregnated with permethrin can also be purchased at outdoor clothing stores and can remain effective for extended periods of time.
- Tick checks: To effectively transmit Lyme disease, deer ticks have to be attached and feeding for approximately 36 – 48 hours which means that daily tick checks can help find and remove ticks before they’ve had a chance to transmit Lyme disease. Tick checks can be an important precaution for both people and pets.
- Protecting Pets: Family pets should be treated with a preventative flea and tick treatment. Consult with your veterinarian about the products recommended for your particular pet(s). Lyme vaccines for animals are also available through your veterinarian.
Perhaps Mother Nature has a cruel sense of humor with her April Fools’ pranks—we finally have an end to the dreary days of winter only to move into tick season!