A couple of years ago, we found a tick behind our Aussie’s ear. The sucker was hidden well and had been latched on for a while. The only reason we found it was because Oscar’s eye had begun to swell, which caused us to take a closer look at what would be causing such a strange thing. After we pulled the tick off, Oscar got sick very quickly, to the point where we were concerned we might lose him. We took him to the local vet in Hood River, who eventually referred us to a specialist in Portland, and after many tests they still couldn’t figure out what was wrong with him. As his health continued to decline, we kept thinking back to that tick. What if it was Lyme disease?
For whatever reason, the vet didn’t seem concerned about Lyme Disease. But the classic signs were there: loss of appetite, stiff and lame joints, lack of energy. And that tick seemed to be the beginning of all Oscar’s problems. Finally, the vet consented to treat Oscar for Lyme disease. And guess what? He got better.
Since then we’ve been pretty religious about treating the dogs (to be fair, we treated the dogs before, but we were kinda hit or miss with it). So we treat the dogs early spring through summer, but what about winter? Ticks die in the winter, right?
Most ticks become active as the weather warms up. And even though its less likely to encounter a tick during the late fall and through winter, they don’t necessarily die off from the cold weather. Ticks will burrow underground or make their home under decaying leaves and other debris, which insulates them well during those frosty and frozen days, even in the snow.
One variety of tick, the Blacklegged or Deer Tick, will even venture out during winter months when daily temps fluctuate above freezing. And its this tick that is the most concerning, as its estimated that 50% or more of these ticks carry Lyme Disease.
Blacklegged ticks are a three cycle tick, meaning they will latch onto three separate hosts during their lifespan, which is generally two years. Larvae will wait on plant leaves or on grass blades until a small animal, usually a mouse, passes by. It’ll feed and by the time it drops off it has become a Nymph. Still too small to be seen in most cases, Nymphs remain active through the summer, and are often the most dangerous in spreading Lyme disease as they will bite any kind of mammal, including humans. It only takes 36 hours to transmit the disease, and by the time the host has been infected, these nymphs are usually long gone.
By fall the Nymph will molt into an adult and will be looking to attach to anything large that will sustain it through the cold months. This is when deer are most active, which is generally the Blacklegged tick’s favorite host. But they won’t rule out latching onto a dog sniffing through or rolling in the leaf pile.
Blacklegged ticks are found almost anywhere in the United States, from the Northeast through the Midwest and all along the Pacific coast. They are very common here in Iowa.
Year-long prevention is the best way to protect our pets. Talk with your vet about recommended treatment plans. Make sure your yard is free of fallen leaves and other debris. Cut back wooded areas to create more open space. Consider keeping dense plants away from your home, especially around entry areas. And check your pets regularly. I know I will be from now on. There’s nothing to fear about ticks, as long as we’re well-informed and have a solid defensive game plan.
Oscar is doing well, by the way. He’s slow to get up sometimes, and we can tell his joints are still stiff. I’m told these can be lasting symptoms of Lyme disease. He’s only 4 years old, and we’re kind of fond of him, so we’ll be much more dilligent in preventing future exposure.
Side Note: Where did Lyme Disease come from? It’s widely reported that the first confirmed cases came when several children and adults in Lyme, Connecticut started having strange symptoms, including swollen knees, skin rashes, headaches and severe chronic fatigue. These symptoms went largely undiagnosed until two persistent mothers did their own research and eventually contacted outside scientists to investigate. By the end of the decade, anyone with the symptoms was referenced as having Lyme. But it wasn’t until the 80s when scientists studying Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever made the connection between Lyme and ticks. Today, Lyme Disease is one of the fastest growing vector-borne illnesses in the US.
Another, more controversial theory, connects the Connecticut outbreak in the 70s to an accidental release of infected ticks during experiments at Plum Island Animal Disease Center on Long Island Sound, about 8 miles south of Lyme.
That certainly makes for a great story!