Ticked off

By Alice Rose

Check yourself and your pets for ticks to prevent Lyme disease.

Like many children of my era, a popular summer activity was catching all manner of bugs, keeping them in canning jars in our bedroom. Despite the smallness of the holes in the lids, our buggy roommates always managed to mysteriously disappear. I suspect that my mother liberated them to their natural habitat, but then we imagined them setting up house in the nooks and crannies of our bedroom. This did not bother us in the least. Numerous science classes later taught us the importance of bugs to what our teachers called “the balance of nature.” All this is a way of saying bugs don’t scare me.

Still, two weeks ago when the physician’s assistant in my doctor’s office told me he had picked four ticks off his dog the previous weekend, I shuddered. Despite monthly application of a popular flea and tick medication, my older dog tested positive for exposure to Lyme disease in the spring of 2010. There followed 30 days of devious and creative attempts to treat him with the appropriate antibiotic. In the fall of 2010, while showering, I felt what I thought was a splinter on my lower back. Closer inspection revealed a black “splinter” in the middle of a softball size bull’s-eye rash.

What I said is not suitable for print, but what I did was call my doctor’s office for advice on how to remove the tick correctly. Although I followed that advice, all I succeeded in doing was removing the body. The tick still had its jaws firmly planted in my back. There followed seven days of the same said antibiotic used to treat my dog.

A study published in the February 2012 American Journal of Medicine and Hygiene pinpoints southern Maine, specifically the mid-coast and York and Cumberland counties, as areas where infected deer ticks that cause Lyme disease are prevalent. This is clearly a concern since infected ticks can transmit the bacteria (spirochetes) that causes Lyme disease to animals and to humans. In animals, the symptoms of infection may include lameness, fever, lethargy and loss of appetite. In humans, the infection may present like a bad case of the flu. The University of Maine Cooperative Extension Service (Bulletin #2357) states that while Lyme disease is “rarely life-threatening,” if left untreated it may cause joint, nervous system and heart problems.

Traditional wisdom tells us — and correctly — that there are ways to avoid getting Lyme disease. Such wisdom advises us to wear light-colored clothing, tucking pants into socks and donning long-sleeved shirts, especially when walking in the woods, clearing brush and walking in tall grass. Spray your clothing and shoes with an insect repellant containing DEET. Your pets can be protected from Lyme disease with the application of flea and tick repellants made especially for them and on the recommended schedule. Lyme vaccine also is available for them, but not for us. Keep grass short and any brush around your house cut back (an acquaintance swears that his free-range chickens do a great job eliminating ticks in his yard, but not having chickens I can’t attest to this method). Conduct regular tick checks of yourself and your pets. Finally, know the symptoms of Lyme disease.

Good advice. But, and there is a “but,” if you like to garden, to walk your dogs, or to stroll in the woods, none of this guarantees that you or your pets will not be exposed to Lyme disease. As noted earlier, we live in an area where ticks infected with Lyme disease are endemic, as are deer, white-footed mice, coyotes, chipmunks and other warm-blooded animals on which ticks feed. Most infections are caused by ticks in their nymph stage and nymphs are very small (two millimeters) and thus hard to see. The Centers for Disease Control reports that between 10-20% of infected individuals do not develop the telltale bull’s-eye rash and some that do, do not develop it at the site of the bite. If you don’t find a tick near the rash, look elsewhere.

Further complicating detection is the fact that ticks tend to migrate to the hairy parts of our bodies: head, armpits and groin. For some reason, my visitor latched on at waistband level on my back, but since I avoid looking at myself naked in full-length mirrors as much as possible, it went undetected for an indeterminate amount of time.

If your dogs have long, dark coats, as do mine, detecting ticks on them before they attach to the skin can be challenging. As I discovered, the popular commercial tick products used on dogs are not 100% effective against infection. Jim Dill, entomologist for the University of Maine’s Pest Management program, explains that effectiveness depends on your dog’s metabolism, the time between applications, and the size of your dog. Depending on how quickly your dog metabolizes the repellent, it may not be as effective by the time the next scheduled dose is due as it was on the day it was applied. Dosage depends on the size of the dog, but it’s a size range, say 40.1 to 85 pounds. If your dog is at the upper end of the range given, it may not be as effective as on a dog at the lower end of the range.

The first question my doctor asked me was how long the tick had been attached, the reason being that it takes at least 24 hours for an attached tick to transmit the infection. Quick detection and correct removal of a tick is very important. Check yourself and your dogs every day. If you find an attached tick, with the fine end of tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull upward with a gentle, steady pressure, avoiding if possible leaving the head behind. Clean the area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or other antiseptic, or plain soap and water. Jim Dill emphasized that the main thing was not to use nail polish or a hot match in an attempt to remove the tick. The point is quick removal, which nail polish or other folk remedies won’t accomplish. A hot match to the tick’s body will result in the tick exuding more bacteria into your body, also not in your best interests.

Every evening at dusk, five deer come into our field to feed. I admit my first thought now is not “gorgeous” or even “someone’s meal.” It’s “ticks.” Same thing for the chipmunks scampering to and from under the bird feeder. My first thought is not “bold,” “cute” or even “rodents,” it’s “ticks.” I’m sure this phase will pass. After all, I’m not afraid of bugs. I believe in the “balance of nature,” which means we are edible, too.

Alice Rose is a lifelong gardener. She lives in Casco with her husband, two Afghan hounds and four cats, as well as numerous wild visitors.

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