Mild winter brings early tick season to region

Courtesy photo/Scott Bauer, USDA Agricultural Research Service, Bugwood.orgDeer tick

NEWBURYPORT — Ticks are back and hungry, and the warm winter and early spring has only enhanced their activity.

The dislike of the blacklegged tick, often referred to as the deer tick, isn’t unwarranted. With one bite, these tiny terrors — about the size of a sesame seed — can cause three pretty nasty diseases in humans: Lyme, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Dogs can also get the first two as well.  

“Ticks can be active all year long, especially when there are those warm spells we get in winter,” said Salisbury veterinarian Dr. Heidi Bassler, of Bassler Veterinary Hospital. “After the mild winter we had, a lot of our pet owners have told us they’re seeing a lot of tick activity.”

Unfortunately, she said, tick-borne diseases aren’t just a problem during the warm outdoor months. She treats tick-related illnesses in January and February, too, when pet owners least expect it. This year, with little snow covering the ground much of the winter and early warm temperatures, ticks are about and they’re not kidding around. 

“They’re anxious for a blood meal,” she said. 

Though the tiny arachnids are often linked to summertime hikes through grassy fields and woodlands, experts say ticks are problematic for people and pets as soon as snow melts and temperatures reach 40 degrees. Those were the conditions for most of March. According to Alan Eaton, a University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension specialist in entomology, April’s unseasonable snowstorm may have caused a short lull in sightings, but blacklegged ticks are nothing if not resilient. 

Bassler said ticks in all phases of their life cycles can also present problems. Nymphs, which are ticks in their early, second phase of life, are also active. Even smaller than the adult tick, she said, they can appear as tiny as a poppy seed and can hide unnoticed along the inside of a cat’s eyelid. 

Lyme disease is the best known of the tick-borne diseases in the Northeast, Bassler said, but co-infection is possible from one bite. The best remedy is good tick control, she said, which includes checking animals closely after they’ve been outside. But with so many nooks and crannies where ticks can hide — like ears, eyes, between toes, under tails and within fur — Bassler believes using preventative measures, in addition to inspecting pets, is very important. 

There are topical methods to prevent ticks from adhering to pets, she said, but in recent years the Federal Drug Administration has approved oral medications that work well for dogs. She also recommends the Lyme disease vaccine to her clients.

Although cats don’t get Lyme disease, she said, ticks can be brought into an environment by them and cause problems for others. There are good FDA medications for cats, as there are for dogs, Bassler said. She cautions pet owners, however, that the medications aren’t interchangeable. Dogs should be given medication approved for dogs and cats those approved for cats.

For people, Lyme disease symptoms include flu-like symptoms of fever, headache and fatigue, as well as a characteristic bull’s-eye skin rash radiating out from the bite site. Left untreated, the disease can become debilitating when it spreads to joints and major organs. If caught early, antibiotics are effective. 

For dogs, Bassler said Lyme disease symptoms can come on pretty quickly. Pet owners with a sick, lethargic dog that won’t eat and that appears to be in pain, should take action immediately. 

For both humans and dogs, blood test can determine if Lyme disease is the culprit.

The most commonly reported vectorborne illness in humans in the United States in 2014, Lyme disease was the fifth most common Nationally Notifiable disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It doesn’t occur nationwide, however, but is most prominent in the Northeast and upper Midwest.

CDC statistics indicate 96 percent of confirmed cases in 2014 were reported from 14 states, and all six New England states are on that list. According to Salisbury/Amesbury health agent Jack Morris, Lyme disease has been on the rise in Essex County. 

The same is true for bordering Rockingham County, New Hampshire, according to


Tick tips  

Wear light-colored clothing with a tight weave to spot ticks easily.

Wear enclosed shoes, long pants and a long-sleeved shirt. Tuck pant legs into socks or boots and shirt into pants.

Consider using an insect repellent containing DEET and applying it to shoes and clothing.

Check clothes and any exposed skin frequently for ticks while outdoors.

Stay on cleared, well-traveled trails. Avoid overgrown brush and tall grass and contacting vegetation.

Avoid sitting directly on the ground or on stone walls.

Keep long hair tied back.

Do a full-body tick check at the end of the day (also check children and pets), and remove ticks promptly.

When found, remove ticks promptly.

To remove, use tweezers and grasp the tick’s mouthparts at the surface of the skin and pull gently straight out in steady motion.

Wipe the bite with an antiseptic or wash with soap and water.

Do not, while the tick is attached: squeeze a tick, rub with petroleum jelly, burn it with a hot match or cigarette, pour kerosene or nail polish on it.

Note where the bite was and check over coming days for signs of infection or rash. 

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