Longer tick season impacting people and pets
While some residents in the northwoods are reporting seeing more ticks than usual, the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH) won’t know 2021 tick numbers until the spring of 2022.
Dr. Elizabeth Shiffman is an epidemiologist of vector borne diseases at MDH.
“The season started early so people started seeing ticks sooner and that may lead to the perception there are more ticks,” she said. “The Park Rapids area is one of the hot spots in the state for ticks.”
She said ticks thrive in warm, humid weather. “It’s harder for them when it’s hot and dry,” she said. “They tend to hunker down and stay close to the ground in those conditions.”
Dr. Michelle Thieman at Essentia Health in Park Rapids said they typically see the most bites in May to early June and again late August through November.
Dr. Shayla Hesse is a physician at Sanford in Bemidji who specializes in infectious diseases. She moved to Minnesota from an urban area of Maryland last month.
“I definitely am seeing more cases of tick-borne diseases here than where I was previously practicing,” she said. “So far, I’ve seen cases of both Lyme disease and babesiosis.”
Babesiosis is caused by a parasite that attacks red blood cells, so patients can become very anemic in severe cases, while Lyme is caused by a bacteria.
Symptoms and when to seek treatment
Hesse said different tick-borne illnesses often present similar symptoms, such as fever, fatigue, body aches, joint pain and headaches.
Lyme is sometimes also accompanied by a red “bull’s-eye” rash surrounding the lesion.
“If you see that, you should come in and be treated, typically with a course of doxycycline,” she said. “There are also alternative therapies for those who can’t tolerate doxycycline.”
In many cases, the person bitten doesn’t know it and there is no rash.
“They still might have a tick-borne illness and you should still see your doctor if you have symptoms you think might be related to a tick bite,” Hesse said. “There are a number of laboratory tests we can do.
“If there’s enough suspicion that you’ve been bitten by a tick, especially one that could transmit Lyme, a short course of doxycycline is often given before we have laboratory confirmation. This can prevent the disease from entering later stages. So it’s better to come in sooner than later. Over the past several decades, data collected by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) indicates that the number of cases of tick-borne illnesses has increased significantly.”
Types of ticks
Hesse said public enemy number one in transmitting diseases to humans is the deer tick, also known as the black-legged tick.
“It can transmit not only Lyme disease, but also babeseosis and anaplasmosis,” she said. “It is possible the tick could be infected with and transmit more than one tick-borne disease with a single bite.”
Ehrlichia is transmitted by yet another tick known as the Lone Star Tick. It is found in Texas and in the southeastern region of the country, but is not as common in Minnesota.
Dr. Thieman said ticks need to be attached 24-36 hours at a minimum to transmit disease.
“Check every day for ticks,” she said.
Symptoms typically develop 7-10 days after the bite.
Thieman recommends www.health.state.mn.us/diseases/tickborne/index.html for more information.
Veterinarians weigh in
Dr. Barbara Lester at Isaacson Veterinary Hospital in Park Rapids said symptoms for tick diseases in pets include limping, lethargy, lack of appetite and sometimes vomiting or diarrhea. Most pets also have a fever.
“Some pets will have more serious issues associated with tick diseases,” she said. “Anaplasmosis can cause a decrease in platelet numbers. This can be very dangerous. Rarely, Lyme disease can attack the kidneys and pets will have kidney failure.”
She said the best way to prevent these diseases is to use tick preventatives all year. “That way pets are protected in the winter if temperatures are above freezing, as ticks are out even when the weather is cold,” she said. “Oftentimes, owners wait until they start seeing ticks in the spring and then start the preventative, which has already left pets exposed to tick diseases.”
Hesse said in addition to using an insect repellent with DEET, wearing light colored clothing so ticks are easier to spot, tucking pants into socks or boots there are other steps people can take.
“Something many people overlook is our furry friends,” she said. “Even if the pet is on a preventative, they can still pick up ticks in their fur, come into the house and transmit the tick to you when you are petting them or lying next to them. That can expose you to ticks even if you’re not out and about tromping through the woods. With all their fur, it’s hard to spot ticks on pets.”
Landscaping can also help.
“By taking measures in the areas outside your house you can reduce the risk,” she said. “Keep grass mowed short, remove brush or leaf litter and consider having a barrier of wood chips or rocks between your yard and heavily wooded areas. Ticks are less likely to cross that barrier if it's three feet or wider.”