Ticks the season…..

It’s spring (for real this time), and everyone is eager to get outside after a long winter and an even longer pandemic…Unfortunately, we’re not the only ones.  May and June are peak seasons for tick activity in western Canada, when adult American dog ticks and Rocky Mountain wood ticks are questing for that “forever host”, taking their last blood meal, and settling down to lay their eggs. 

Unfed female American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), photo credit Pratap Kafle

These “ornate” ticks are generally a brownish colour, with white decorations on top of their hard flat “scutum”, which literally translates to shield.  Anyone who has tried squishing one can attest to the strength of this armour!

To avid outdoor enthusiasts, the prospect of checking for ticks after returning from a stroll through the woods is just par for the course.  To protect yourself, wear pants and long-sleeved shirts and use repellents like DEET when walking amongst brush or tall grass, especially on warm sunny days.  Do a full body check after being outside, ideally within 6-24 hrs of being out in tick country.  This reduces the chances the tick will attach, transmit pathogens, and even (in central BC) cause a rare paralysis associated with a toxin produced by female Rocky Mountain wood ticks.

The American dog tick is well-named – they will always choose a dog over a human if they can.  To protect your furry best friend, you can do tick checks, paying special attention to areas where the ticks can hide and avoid being scratched off (like behind and inside ears).  If you have a very furry best friend, it can be hard to spot ticks.  For those who don’t want to take the chance of missing ticks, there are a wide range of highly effective tick control options that your veterinarian can recommend for your dog.

If you are in close contact with wildlife, especially biologists handling rodents, rabbits, and songbirds, keep a close eye out for juvenile stages of ticks.  Nymphs and larvae are much smaller than adults, and can take a trained eye to spot.  Since birds can acquire ticks anywhere on their migration route from the USA or even further south, these ticks are of special interest to Canadian tick surveillance programs.  Foreign ticks, like the Lone Star tick and the Asian long-horned tick can hitch rides on wildlife, and we’d like to detect them before they can establish in Canada.

If you find a tick attached to your skin, on your pet, or on wildlife that you are handling for research purposes:

1)      Carefully remove it with tweezers by grasping the mouth parts as close to the skin as possible (ticks secrete a glue patch and embed their mouthparts deep into the skin, so use slow and steady pressure)

2)      Submit photos of your tick through the eTick App or website (https://www.etick.ca/) or to your provincial surveillance program

Fed female black-legged tick (Ixodes pacificus), photo credit Pratap Kafle

Surveillance programs are primarily in place to detect black-legged ticks.  These ticks cause Lyme disease and are established in southern Manitoba and coastal BC.  Adult black-legged ticks are smaller than the American dog tick and the Rocky Mountain wood tick, and many prairie-dwellers can miss these smaller, plainer ticks. Most human cases of Lyme disease are associated with the bite of an infected nymph, which is no bigger than a poppy seed.   Nymphs become active during the spring and summer months which is also when people and more likely to encounter the tiny blood-sucking parasites, while hunting, bird watching, or wandering the great outdoors. 

Don’t drop your vigilance completely once the spring tick season is over – black-legged ticks often quest for a host in late fall, even in Saskatchewan and Alberta where these ticks have likely arrived as nymphs brought in by migratory birds and developed over the summer into adult ticks.  And in coastal BC, black-legged ticks can be active year round, enjoying the milder coastal climes, just like prairie retirees.   

While you may encounter ticks on your outdoor adventure, they should not prevent you from enjoying  wildlife and the outdoors.  With a little precaution, we can all reap the benefits of the outdoors this spring.

Submitted by Emily Jenkins – CWHC W/N Affiliate

Professor, Department of Veterinary Microbiology


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