Ticks: Perennial Problem for Human and Animal Health

The District Vet

Ticks are a perennial problem for human and animal health, as they are vectors of transmission of various potentially debilitating ailments. Utilizing flea and tick preventives is well known and accepted, but many people fail to take appropriate precautions for their own health. The summer 2021 season is proving to be a bonanza year for ticks, therefore extra care should be taken to prevent tick bites and tick-borne disease.

Last winter was not as mild as the year before, but this year’s tick crop is massive. This mostly has to do with the life cycle of oak trees, chipmunks, and mice. Really. Two years ago the conditions were ideal for oak trees to drop innumerable acorns, a favorite food of rodents, especially mice. Plump on acorns, they overwintered and had a population boom the next summer (now). Ticks require a blood meal at each major life stage (larval, nymph, adult). Larval ticks hatching on the ground and in shrubbery have plenty of mice and other rodents on which to feed. It has been theorized that larval ticks which feed on mice are more infective than those who get their first meal from other animals.

Of all the stages of ticks, the nymph stage, right after the larval stage, is the most infective and responsible for a majority of infections in people and domestic animals. Complicating this is their size: nymphs are approximately the diameter of a poppy seed. The large ticks you see and pull off your clothing and pets readily are easier to spot and less infective. It’s the small ones with which one must be especially vigilant.

Ticks lay in wait on grasses, holding onto the blade with their hind feet and waving their front feet, grasping onto passing animals and people. When walking outside in grassy areas or gardening, resist the temptation to wear shorts. Utilizing pants which are tucked into your socks, will prevent ticks from attaching to your skin. Light colored clothing will allow you to visualize any hitchhikers, too. Tick repellants may be applied to clothing, but do take care of the product used as permethrin is toxic to cats. There are sprays which are long-lasting, even after several wash cycles.

Ticks can be present on clothing without your knowledge. It is advised that you do not even enter your dwelling clothed if you believe ticks may be present. Yes, strip down on the front steps, in the garage, in a hallway. Ticks can and will jump off of you and wait for another passer-by, most likely you, to get their next needed blood meal. A 2016 study in the journal Ticks and Tick Borne Diseases looked at killing ticks via washing machine and dryer. Interestingly, the research showed that ticks washed in cold water do not die and those washed in hot water (in excess of 130°F) were killed only half of the time. These arachnids are very hardy. But they did demonstrate that the best method to kill all life stages of ticks is to put your clothing in the dryer first, before washing, for six minutes on high. Ticks that were washed on clothing then put in the dryer took 50 minutes to die.

Remember to shower with soap within two hours of coming indoors. Inspect yourself carefully in a mirror and don’t neglect those more hidden places on your body, including armpits, areas covered by undergarments, and behind the ears.

It is of the utmost importance to keep any indoor/outdoor pets on an approved flea and tick preventive. Remember that these preventives do not act as a shield—the ticks may hitch a ride on your pet and jump off in the house. Most preventives work by killing ticks after they bite your pet. Always inspect your dog or cat when coming on from a walk. Although you may not see all the ticks, remove those which you do find. Remember, finding dead ticks on your pet means that the preventive is working.

Take care this tick season and please use appropriate caution for yourself.

Dan Teich, DVM is Medical Director at District Veterinary Hospital Eastern Market.