We hear it every year, year after year…”This is going to be the worst year for ticks yet.” It seems to get worse every year. If this is unfamiliar to you, you might be fortunate enough to live in an area where the concern is not so prevalent. In the northeastern United States, however, you’d be hard pressed to find a group that hasn’t expressed concern.
These tiny vile creatures spread several diseases, most commonly Lyme Disease. Since May is Lyme Disease Prevention Month let’s work to understand HOW Lyme is transmitted. We’ll also explore some steps we can take to keep ourselves and our animals (horses, dogs, cats) safe.
In 2017 nearly 30,000 cases of Lyme disease were diagnosed and another 13,000 were suspected as “probable.” Most of these cases originated in the northeastern United States as seen in the map below thanks to CDC.gov. The chart following shows the upward trend of Lyme disease throughout the years.
Ticks are arachnids, or eight-legged creatures, that thrive in deep grass and wooded areas. Often areas where our horses enjoy, of course. There are several different species of tick and they all have different life cycles, feeding habits, and habitats.
What is a bit more alarming is a new tick to the United States called the Asian Long-horned tick, which can reproduce without a mate. The video below talks briefly about it.
Most of the time when we think of ticks we think of the most common threat; the deer tick/black-legged tick. The deer tick is often the source of Lyme disease along with several other illnesses including Anaplasmosis, Powassan, and Tick-Borne Relapsing Fever. Blade suffered from anaplasmosis in 2017 (Blade’s Got the Blues and Equine Affaire).
The deer tick begins its life cycle as an egg laid by the females in springtime. By summer the larva emerges from its egg and waits for a host. Hosts are typically birds and small rodents.
Freshly hatched ticks they are free of the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Only when they feed on their hosts do they pick up the pathogens. In the United States the bacteria transmitted is either Borrelia burgdorferi or Borrelia mayonii. Across the pond in Europe and Asia you are more likely to find Borrelia afzelii and Borrelia garinii.
The birds and rodents that feed tick larva carry these species of bacteria without illness; they are simply hosts. By fall the tick falls from its host and enters its nymph stage. The nymphs are barely visible to the human eye. These critters lay dormant through the winter but by April/May they begin to emerge again. They wait for a host to walk by so they can catch a ride. Using their barbed mouth parts, the tick digs in for a blood meal. The pathogen inside the tick enters the salivary glands and can be released through the tick’s saliva. These hosts include us and our loved ones. Nymphs are often the cause of Lyme disease since they are small and difficult to spot.
By fall the nymphs become adults looking for new hosts. At 45°F they seek wooded areas to survive the winter. When they emerge again in spring they continue to look for hosts and mate. A single female tick can lay 3000 eggs! After a two-year life cycle the new batch of larva hatches and begins the cycle again.
As you can see, we can become infected by both the nymphs and the adult ticks. The more hosts carrying the bacteria, the more likely it is to spread to us.
The hallmark sign of Lyme disease is the bullseye, a circular rash around the bite. Symptoms may appear weeks after the bite. This appears in a majority of cases…but what of our equine friends?
Horses suffering from Lyme Disease may have subtle symptoms. They might be off mentally, emotionally, and physically. They may be sore or lame, lethargic, grumpy, neurological, or have a low-grade fever. Lyme is known to mimic other issues so a vet is critical in ruling out other problems. Lyme will also elude testing, as there are many cases of Lyme that appear negative on test results.
I’m even learning that Lyme can be a cause for some headshaking in horses. Headshaking is not commonly listed as a symptom nor have any of my vets over the past two years suggested the possibility. This is, however, something I plan on looking into after this research. As you may know from past articles, Blade developed headshaking about 18 months ago (shortly after his run with anaplasmosis). Though our tests were negative it could have been one of those instances with a false negative.
Once Lyme has been diagnosed (or suspected) there are a few treatment options.
The most common treatment is called Doxycycline, an ingestable antibiotic often given in a powdered form with food. A similar drug is called Naxcel. Despite their popularity with horse-owners they only happen to be 50% effective.
The most effective treatment is more pricey… a study in 2005 reported 100% effectiveness. The reoccurrence levels were considerably lower in the study as well. What’s this treatment you ask? Daily intravenous oxytetracycline. My vet once called it the “gold standard.” The reason most horse-owners don’t opt for this treatment is the administration. Having a vet visit and administer the shot every day for 3-5 days is pricey so most horse owners use the Doxy.
If I remember correctly I paid somewhere around $450 for three daily IVs of Oxytet for Blade.
So what are some ways we can prevent this problem from happening in the first place? As the Benjamin Franklin saying goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Lyme vaccines for horses are not available yet. Studies have shown some effectiveness using canine vaccines on ponies, but it is still far too early. There are no studies out (yet) showing the safety of this methodology. Until we have vaccines we are tasked with the footwork that we should be doing anyway.
- Checking for ticks often is the first thing you should be doing. Check yourself, check your dogs, check your cats, check your horses. It takes 24 hours for a biting tick to transmit the disease. I tend to find most ticks under the cheek, the neck, the chest, and the barrel (especially up behind the back legs).
- There are a lot of Facebook experts who have tips, tricks, and endless opinions on tick removal. The simplest thing you can do is use a good pair of tweezers and pull the tick up slowly and steadily so you remove the whole bug. Another useful tool can be found in most pharmacies and pet stores. The tick twister. This little hooklike tool comes in a couple sizes (at least mine had 3 sizes in the package). When you find a tick you slide the bug between the openings at the end so it becomes wedged. From there twist and pull gently. I have successfully removed many ticks using this tool and I love it. After a tick is removed you may choose to save it in a plastic bag for testing. Apply alcohol or antibiotic ointment to the affected bite wound to be safe.
- Since ticks prefer wooded areas, you can try to stay out of these areas. That’s easier said than done if you enjoy the outdoors.
- Keeping the grass and pasture mowed can be helpful.
- Removing piles of leaves and moist ground cover is an excellent way to prevent ticks. That leftover hay pile? Let’s get rid of it!
- Keeping down the rodent population could be useful. Non-poison rodent traps, barn cats, and proper food storage go a long way.
- Chickens and guinea hens love to eat ticks!
- DEET and permethrins are of course some good chemicals that have proven efficacy for the prevention of ticks and other pests. Some people use them others don’t. That’s your choice to make. There are many products on the market including fly sprays, spot-on applications, and even wipes.
- I have had mediocre success with feed through pest repellant. The more I use it the less effective it seems to be (though the first year seemed to make a big difference).
- If you are opposed to chemicals more research has been finding useful essential oils that are as effective as the CDC recommended products. The key to the best product is perfecting the volatility ratio of oils. High volatility essential oils disperse into the air faster. This helps by preventing ticks from attaching in the first place. Lower volatility oils will disperse into the air more slowly and have a longer lasting effect. Check out the Tisserand Institute’s “Tick Talk” (link below) for more information on these oils. I’ve also shared with you their formulation for DIY tick repellant.
The thought of ticks and the disease they spread makes my head hurt. Lyme disease is rarely fatal but it does lead to some frustrating and debilitating complications.
Other diseases like Powassan are rarer but a lot more deadly; this virus is associated with brain swelling. Here in New York we are already beginning to hear reports of Powassan virus. One group has found 25-50% of deer in the Adirondacks are positive for the virus and it only takes 15 minutes for the tick to transmit the virus to humans.
Whether Lyme, Anaplasmosis, or Powassan we can take steps to stay healthy and prevent ticks from biting. It may take some time and effort but it’s completely worth it.
What are some of the methods you use to keep ticks at bay?
REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING