Creature Thoughts, May/June 2023. Tick Myths.

Dispelling Tick Myths

White-tailed deer fawn, ©2003, Gayle Nastasi

By now, most of you know that I will be retiring due to medical issues in the fall. Many of you have also been witness to my struggle with Lyme disease.

In general, the truth about ticks and tick-borne diseases is still poorly understood. I thought I’d dedicate this month’s Creature Thoughts to dispelling just a few of the many myths about ticks.

I know I have written about ticks before, so I guess this issue may be considered part of a series. Will the series continue? I don’t know yet, but I hope what has been (and will be) written helps you to understand what we, as pet owners and potential victims ourselves, are up against.

Deer Spread Lyme Disease

This myth haunts a bit of a gray area.

Ixodes scapularis, the black-legged tick, is most commonly known as the deer tick. It’s only natural to assume that the bacteria that causes Lyme disease (Borrelia burgdorferi) lives and thrives in deer and is spread to its victims through them.

In reality, numerous studies have shown that white-tailed deer, even when infested by hundreds of adult black-legged ticks, very rarely have the bacteria in their blood. In fact, it’s been recently discovered that deer blood actually kills the bacteria. Yes, you read that correctly. The implications of this are tremendous. By isolating the properties of deer blood serum responsible for killing Borrelia, will we be led to a cure for Lyme disease?

Deer, however, do spread the ticks themselves (there’s that gray area I mentioned). So, though the ticks are not becoming infected through feeding on the deer, what they are doing is … making more ticks. Adult black-legged ticks infest the deer in large numbers, breed and feed, and then drop off to lay their eggs.

The eggs later hatch, and the tiny larval ticks come into contact with the next creature of Lyme myth and legend.

You can read more about the deer-blood study here:

Only Mice Spread Lyme Disease

People who are aware of the misunderstood role that deer play in Lyme disease will sometimes point to mice. The white-footed mouse is a primary transporter of Borellia (and other tick-borne diseases; that one’s coming up in a minute). Mice are one reason that, even if you don’t spend a lot of time outside, and don’t have pets who spend a lot of time outside, you can still contract Lyme.

Have you seen evidence of mice in your house? The tiny ticks, larval and nymph stage, which frequent mice are no larger than a sesame seed (those are the nymphs, the larvae are even smaller). You may have ticks in your house if you have mice. Though it is far more common to come into contact with ticks outdoors, it’s not inconceivable that you might be bitten in your own home. When bitten by these tiny ticks, many people (yours truly included) are not even aware of the actual bite until symptoms begin to develop. The same is true, and probably even more so (they have fur to hide in, after all), when our pets are bitten.

However, studies have shown that not only mice spread the disease. Lyme disease (etc.) has also been discovered in the blood of other wildlife. Chipmunks, squirrels, opossums, and raccoons have all been discovered to have active Lyme disease infections. Dogs, horses, and sometimes cattle can also contract the disease. A tick that bites any of these species can pick up the bacteria and transmit it to other animals (human animals included, of course).

Only the Nymph Stage of Ticks Spreads Lyme

There’s no gray area here. This is simply false. Active Lyme infections have been spread by all life stages of the tick. In fact, according to recent studies, Lyme can be spread by routes other than tick bites, including from mother to fetus during pregnancy—but that’s a topic for another article.

Deer Ticks Only Carry Lyme Disease

Black-legged ticks can carry a number of diseases, and in fact, it’s actually somewhat rare to find a tick infected with only one pathogen. Even according to the CDC (which is not my favorite source of information on Lyme, as anyone who’s been beaten over the head with my soapbox knows), Ixodes scapularis can also carry: anaplasmosis, babesiosis, B. mayonii, B. miyamotoi, and Powassan disease.

Only Deer Ticks Cause Disease

There are many different kinds of ticks, and all of them have been discovered to carry diseases. Some of the more well-known issues are: Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, which is spread by the American dog tick, brown dog tick, and Rocky Mountain wood tick; and ehrlichiosis and STARI, which are transmitted by the lone-star tick. There are others, as well. The following page on the CDC’s website contains information (which may or may not be complete, but it’s still pretty daunting) on tick-borne diseases and the ticks that spread them.

Ticks And Their Diseases Are Restricted To Certain Regions

While it’s true that, traditionally, it was thought that the different types of ticks were regionally limited, this is changing. In fact, it’s changing rapidly. Climate change has caused a shift in the environment, including variations in the migratory habits of birds. Ticks hitch rides and are discovering new territories in which to thrive. In my own area, lone-star ticks have been gaining ground, for instance. Black-legged ticks are now found (as is Lyme disease) in all fifty US states, as well as all over the world.

Spring Begins Tick Season

Again, while adult ticks are more active in the spring, and it’s more common to see them in warmer weather, this is another myth. Ticks can be around all year long. They are resilient and can withstand severe temperatures in a dormant state and rouse any time the weather warms up a bit. They can also ride mouse-back into your homes in the winter months. Although it’s more likely that we and our pets will be exposed (due to the time we spend outdoors) in nice weather, it’s good to keep an eye out for them all year. There are many types of preventative, both chemical and natural, on the market. Due diligence is required to keep you and your pets safe.

In Conclusion

This is hardly a conclusion. There are many myths and misconceptions about ticks, not to mention the problems caused by misunderstanding (and medical denial about) Lyme and the other diseases these buggers carry. I have tried to outline a few of the most common, in the hopes that this will help you to understand, as well as to protect yourselves and your precious pets.

An Addendum

I hope you will all watch The Quiet Epidemic. It is a documentary that follows the journey of one young victim of tick-borne disease, and through her struggle educates viewers about not only the diseases themselves, but the denial in the medical community, and the struggle sufferers face in getting proper diagnosis and treatment. It is a true eye-opener, and I believe everyone should open their hearts to its message.

The Quiet Epidemic premieres to stream on AppleTV, Prime Video, and Vimeo-on-demand beginning Tuesday, May 16. It will be available as a DVD on May 30th.

And Some News

Yes, I will be retiring in the fall. I’m not altogether happy about this, but it has simply become necessary. It’s been a privilege to share your precious animal friends with you for nearly a quarter of a century. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of their world.

I will, however, continue to honor any pre-paid sessions my existing clients have purchased.

In that light, I’ll also be granting the request of a number of people who’ve asked about my one-day Summer Solstice Special. The special will run, one last time, from midnight to midnight (US Eastern Time) on June 21st, 2023. I’ll send out a reminder with more information a few days in advance.