Pet owners, vets prepare for soaring tick population
Although mild temperatures during the winter may have been pleasant, the impact on the ecosystem could have pitfalls including a spike in the tick population.
Local veterinarians have already seen significant concern from pet owners about ticks and the risk of deer tick bites is high throughout New England, according to the University of Rhode Island Tick Resource Center website.
Dog owners in the region said they began removing ticks from their pets as early as mid-February.
Katie Schick of Lincolnville said she has removed numerous deer and dog ticks from her Golden Retriever, Betty, during the past month.
"I pulled five ticks off in one day," Schick said. Even though Schick has applied the flea and tick product Frontline to Betty she noted that it "doesn't seem to be working."
Heidi Vanorse, owner of the Loyal Biscuit, said concern about ticks has been a major conversation topic in all three of her shop's locations. Vanorse said she only stocks natural products and opts to refer pet owners to their veterinarians for chemical-based treatments. Still, she said her customers have been interested in both conventional and alternative forms of tick control and prevention.
"It's all about the ticks," Vanorse said. She added that she has heard much less about fleas this spring but expects that they too will pose an issue. She said she was pulling ticks off her own dogs "left and right" during the mid-March heat wave.
Jim Dill, an entomologist and pest management specialist at the University of Maine Cooperative Extension, said that he fully expects a rise in the tick population. Dill said deer ticks emerge when temperatures exceed 40 degrees, even just for a short period.
"Think of this spring. We've had lots of days where [the temperature] has been above 40," he said. He added that unusually high temperatures throughout the winter have also been a factor. "It was one of those winters where we had ticks sent in every month," he said. Dill said the majority of the ticks his organization has received for identification have been deer ticks. Maine also has a large population of dog ticks and some winter ticks, a species that Dill said are almost exclusively found on moose.
Dill explained that the surge in Maine's tick population is only partially due to the warm weather. He said the tick life cycle is two years and the current population surge can be traced back to 2010 when Maine had a prolific acorn and beech nut crop. White-footed mice feed on these indigenous tree nuts and larval ticks take an initial blood meal from the mice. The well-fed mice thrived on the large nut crop and consequently ticks flourished. Dill also serves on the CDC Vector Borne Disease Task Force and said that a spike in Lyme diagnoses is predicted for this year. Maine normally sees about 800 confirmed cases of Lyme disease annually and the illness has been found in every county, he said.
Sheila Pinette, director of the Maine Centers for Disease Control, said the state received 991 reported cases of Lyme disease in 2011. That number represented a small increase from past years but Pinette said it’s difficult to track the number of cases.
“There were about 30,000 reported cases nationwide but there are usually about 5,000 to 10,000 cases that go unreported each year,” Pinette said. “The mild winter we experienced is definitely contributing to tick populations because they are able to replicate in large numbers.”
In addition to an increase in the number of reported cases of Lyme disease, which is gradually trending up, the area of the state with the highest reported cases has shifted to the Bangor area, Pinette said.
“We’re not really sure why there are more cases in that area but we think it’s mainly due to the increase in tick populations,” she said.
Veterinarian Lee Herzig owns and operates Full Circle Holistic Veterinary Clinic in Belfast. He said some of his patients have been combating ticks "all winter." Herzig said he prefers not to use Frontline Plus because he's seen many animals with adverse reactions to the ingredient (S-Methoprene) in the product. Full Circle instead stocks Advantix, a product that repels fleas and ticks on pets. Herzig also gives the thumbs down to the canine Lyme vaccine. According to Herzig the vaccine is only "40 to 50 percent effective."
"I don't even have it in my office," he said.
Herzig noted that some of his patients have had success using all-natural repellents with key ingredients like rosemary and citronella. He said the drawback of these topical treatments is that they require diligent daily application.
Bjorn Lee is one of the veterinarians at PenBay Veterinary Associates in Rockport. Lee said he too has seen ticks throughout the winter. He confirmed that the ticks "came out in force" during the first week of March and have been consistently problematic since. Lee said local tick hotbeds include popular Rockport walking spot Beech Hill and nearby Dodge Mountain. Lee advised dog owners to be diligent about keeping their pets on a road or path when walking, since overgrown grass and underbrush are tick habitats. Lee noted that his practice has recently begun recommending a new product called Parastar Plus, which Lee said has the same active ingredient as Frontline Plus (Fipronil) plus an additional component to agitate the ticks and keep them from attaching. Lee said they've seen "remarkably fewer ticks" in the canine patients treated with Parastar Plus at his practice.
While "absolutely nothing is 100 percent" Lee said he's seen markedly fewer "clinical" Lyme diagnoses in the Lyme vaccinated dogs he sees in his practice. He noted there are multiple types of Lyme vaccination presently on the market. In addition to Lyme, Lee said he has seen an increase in the tick-borne disease Anaplasmosis, which has similar symptoms to Lyme. According to Lee, the symptoms are "more acute" than typical Lyme symptoms but dogs can generally be treated with a course of antibiotics and avoid chronic illness. Five years ago Lee only saw Anaplasmosis in about 5 percent of dogs; that number has jumped to approximately 20 percent now, he said.
The veterinarians agreed if one finds a tick on a pet, it's best to slowly remove it and have it identified. Dill said the University of Maine Cooperative Extension offers identification through its Pest Management Office. Dill suggested preserving the tick in a few drops of rubbing alcohol and placing it inside a sealed vial or small container prior to sending it in. He also recommends calling the vet or doctor if one discovers a partially engorged tick on a pet or human.
Reporter Ben Holbrook contributed to this report. Reporter Jenna Lookner can be reached at 594-4401 and reporter Ben Holbrook can be reached at 338-3333 or by email at email@example.com.