Dr. Trace Mackay talks about ticks on the peninsula, their life cycle and presence among us, and what we need to know to protect ourselves.
To hear an audio recording of the talk click here.
Background on me: veterinarian for 15 years and completed a masters of public health degree in 2010. For that degree I did a placement at the Grey Bruce Health Unit and conducted active tick surveillance in Bruce county dragging for ticks and did not find any Lyme disease positive ticks or significant signs of endemic tick populations in the county.
About ticks: Most ticks live in forested areas with sandy soil and lots of leaf litter. They wait on grasses upto 30cm in height to hitchhike onto passing animals or people - this is called questing. Wild animals are typically the target - mice and deer are part of the natural blacklegged tick/deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) life cycle and are involved in spreading the bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) that can cause Lyme disease. There are other ticks around (groudhog ticks, dog ticks, brown ticks, and the newest tick in town the Lonestar tick) and other tick borne diseases than Lyme disease. People and dogs are not the intended targets for ticks but incidental targets - dogs are more likely to pick up ticks than people as they will wander off paths into grassy places where leaf litter builds up and they have nice fur to cling onto - this is why dogs are important sentinels for the discovery of tick problem areas. Ticks usually hitch a ride on clothing and then find a way to get to our skin until the can find a warm, moist location to attach and feed. Most common spots to find attached ticks on people are hairline/scalp, behind or in ears, armpits and groin, and between toes but they could attach anywhere. Spots to check on pets include in/around the ears, under collars, on the back/neck, axillae (dog "armpits") and groin and between toes.
Do we have a problem with ticks and Lyme disease on the Saugeen Bruce Peninsula? The answer is not likely. There is no evidence that tick populations are cycling through our winters and there is no evidence to suggest we have an endemic Lyme disease problem in our tick and wildlife populations. What we do have is all of the perfect habitat, wildlife hosts and migrating birds that will drop ticks off in the spring that they have picked up further south. As climate change continues and our winters shorter with less below freezing days, tick populations can establish (ticks can be active anytime temperatures are 4'C or warmer - we can still see tick activity all through the winter on breakthrough warm days). So we need to be aware of ticks, but not worried too much about tick bites and tick borne disease yet. There are many areas in Ontario that are Lyme endemic areas with large tick populations (notably along the north shores of Lake Erie, Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence waterway) so extra precautions should be taken when visiting these areas. Not all ticks carry disease causing bacteria and even when they do, people and dogs have less than a 5% chance of contracting an illness from a Lyme positive tick. It takes 24-36 hours of blood feeding/attachment time for ticks to infect a person or pet with bacteria or viruses. If a tick is just crawling on your skin, you won't get sick from it and there is no need to keep it or get it/yourself/or your pet tested - flushing it down the toilet is the best way to get rid of it.
What can we do about ticks? Prevention, prevention, prevention. In our own backyards, we should keep grass cut and remove leafy debris where ticks will go to molt and lay eggs. We should stay on paths when we hike and wear appropriate clothing in areas where picking up a tick is possible - long pants tucked into socks, shirt tucked in. Use effective repellents on lower body clothing like DEET and check yourself, your family members and pets for ticks after walking in wooded/grassy areas. A sticky lint roller brush is a great tool to take over your clothes or throw them in the dryer when you get home - this would dry out and kill ticks on clothing. Having a shower will wash off any ticks that may have gotten onto your skin within hours of a hike. Ask your veterinarian about tick medications for your dogs and outdoor cats that kill ticks quickly rather than just repel ticks - any dead tick is one less tick that could lay 100s of eggs that will grow into more ticks.
What if you still find a tick on yourself or your pet? The best thing to do is remove it quickly without "ticking off the tick" - use tweezers or a tick removal tool to get under the biting pieces and pull straight out. Do not put any irritants like alcohol on the tick as this can cause it to dump more bacteria from its gut into your skin. If you can't pull the tick off yourself, seek medical or veterinary assistance or use vaseline or vegetable oil to smother the tick for a slower release. Wash the area with basic disinfectant. Save that tick - you can submit ticks to the Grey Bruce Public Health Unit for testing if found on a person or to a veterinary clinic that is collecting ticks as part of the passive surveillance plan. Pet owners can also send pictures of ticks or mail ticks to the University of Guelph to be identified and tested - information on how to submit ticks can be found at www.petsandticks.com. And monitor your health and your pets healthy for any changes up to 30 days after a tick exposure. If you develop a bulls eye rash that spread outwards from the bite site or experience any other unusual symptoms, seek care from your doctor as most tick borne diseases are easily treated with a course of antibiotics. Early detection and early treatment are key in preventing Lyme disease and other tick borne illnesses.
So the bottom line is this: we should be aware of ticks on ourselves and our pets, do what we can to prevent tick exposures, but keep on enjoying the great outdoors as the health benefits of keeping ourselves and our pets active far outweighs the risk of contracting a tick borne disease on the Saugeen Bruce Peninsula.
Copyright (c) Bruce Peninsula Environment Group, 2018