They’re tiny. They can carry disease. And they want blood!
No, it’s not an ad for a new horror flick. It’s an alert about ticks and the harm they can cause us and our pets.
Ticks are little parasites without the ability to fly or jump. Can’t be much of a danger, right? Wrong. When warm weather arrives, they crawl up grasses, shrubs, and other plants and wait until you, your pet, or another animal passes by. Then, they drop down and hook on!
If the ticks are infected with pathogens—nasty bacteria, viruses, and the like—they can transmit those when they bite.
Ticks infected with Borrelia burgdorferi bacterium, for example, transmit Lyme disease. That disease can produce joint damage, kidney disease, and neurologic dysfunction. Ticks also can transmit pathogens that cause Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, ehrlichiosis, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, bartonellosis, and other infections.
There are about 30,000 human cases of Lyme disease reported each year to the Centers for Disease Control by state health departments and the District of Columbia. But the CDC estimates that about 10 times as many people are actually infected annually.
“Because only a fraction of illnesses are reported, researchers need to estimate the total burden of illness to set public health goals, allocate resources, and measure the economic impact of disease,” says Candice Hoffmann, press officer with the CDC. “Preliminary results from three different evaluation methods suggest that the number of people diagnosed with Lyme disease each year in the United States is around 300,000. Notably, this new estimate does not affect our understanding of the geographic distribution of Lyme disease.”
Although Lyme disease cases have been reported in all 50 states, the reports reflect where the patient lives, not necessarily where he or she became infected. Infections are usually the result of travel to a state where the disease is common, she notes.
Most Lyme disease cases reported to CDC are concentrated heavily in the Northeast and upper Midwest, with 96 percent of reported cases occurring in 13 states: Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, Virginia, and Wisconsin.
Dogs and humans are very susceptible to tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease. It’s been estimated that many dogs in Lyme disease hot spots have been exposed to the disease, but only a small percentage develop clinical signs.
While Lyme disease is rare in cats, according to the Cornell Feline Health Center, cat owners should still be aware of the possibility of infection. Cats are prone to a dozen or so tick species associated with other major feline diseases. One is tularemia, transmitted by the dog tick, wood tick, and lone star tick, as well as deer flies. That illness ranges from mild to life-threatening, depending on how it enters the body. Cats can transmit the disease to humans. Hoffmann also noted that at least one child in the U.S. has developed tularemia after being bitten by a pet hamster.
So what can pet owners do?
- Talk with your veterinarian about tick-borne diseases in your area and the use of tick preventives on your pet. Ask your veterinarian which products she recommends. Never use a product on a cat that was intended for use on dogs. Cats are very sensitive to chemicals and can get sick or die from inappropriate tick preventives.
- Check your pets and yourself for ticks daily, especially after time spent outdoors. If you find a tick, remove it right away. Follow safe handling techniques, since it is possible to become infected if the tick is improperly handled. Contact your veterinarian immediately if you notice changes in your pet’s behavior or appetite. For cases of Lyme disease in dogs, lameness may not occur for 2 to 5 months after tick exposure, according to the Baker Institute at Cornell University.
- Check the Environmental Protection Agency website to be aware of any problems with pet pest products. For example, in mid-March 2014, the EPA announced that Sergeant's Pet Care Products, Inc., and Wellmark International will cancel flea and tick pet collars containing propoxur marketed as Bansect, Sentry, Zodiac, and Biospot. The EPA found some unacceptable risks to children from exposure to propoxur pet collars on the first day after application. Under the agreement, manufacturers are allowed to produce the pet collars until April 1, 2015, and will not be allowed to distribute the products after April 1, 2016.
- Avoid tick habitats and create areas that are unfriendly to ticks as well as the mice and deer that often carry them. Ticks like damp, shady areas. Experts suggest that homeowners remove leaf litter, clear tall grasses and brush around homes and at the edge of lawns, prune branches to let more sunlight into darker areas, and place a 3-foot-wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas to restrict tick migration.