The mild winter and fluctuating spring temperature appear to have led to a tick boom in Quebec, a province where cases of Lyme disease have been steadily climbing for years.
There are several different types of blood-sucking arachnids on the prowl, but the blacklegged tick, also known as the deer tick, is the one known for carrying the bacteria that causes Lyme disease — an illness that, if left untreated, can lead to long-term health problems.
Quebec public health is working to build awareness and keep track of the disease's spread. Cases of Lyme disease jumped from 125 in 2014 to 500 in 2019.
As part of that effort, public health has teamed up with a Quebec initiative that gives Canadians a fast and easy way to identify ticks they find on their bodies, on their pets or in the wild.
An entomology professor at Bishop's University, Jade Savage, launched Etick.ca a few years ago in collaboration with the Quebec's public health institute (INSPQ) and the Public Health Agency of Canada.
The site can be accessed online or through an app, allowing users to upload photos for local experts to identify.
"You will receive an email with the identity of the tick, some information about its possible medical relevance, as well as some instructions," she said.
Those instructions include what to do if the tick potentially carries disease, connecting people to local resources if necessary.
Blacklegged ticks moving north
The data collected by Etick, as well as the photos and location information, are made available online for anybody to view. The data is also helping researchers keep track of tick sightings.
Since 2017, thousands of ticks have been identified and now the site is becoming more readily available across the country in collaboration with provincial health agencies.
British Columbia joined the initiative this month, and it is expected to roll out in Prince Edward Island in the coming weeks. Once the territories hop on board, possibly by the end of this year, the tool will be available everywhere in Canada, Savage said.
In Quebec, blacklegged ticks are showing up along the Ontario border, in and around Montreal, and as far northeast as Quebec City and Saguenay-Lac-Saint-Jean, she said.
Ticks can travel on birds, so sightings don't necessarily indicate an infestation, Savage said.
Now experts are also on the lookout for the Asian longhorned tick and lone star ticks. So far, the Asian longhorned hasn't made an appearance in Canada but the lone star, known for causing a red meat allergy, has been sighted 21 times in southern Quebec and Ontario.
"It's not a surprise," said Savage. "Usually we find adults so we aren't worried it's established yet but we do keep an eye out."
'High tick year,' entomologist says
Overall, Savage said, ticks have been busy this spring.
"This year, it started getting warm early, but it did not stay super warm," she said. "That is the kind of temperature that the blacklegged, and some of the other species also, really like."
All the data so far indicates a "high tick year," she said.
Quebec public health has been monitoring blacklegged ticks for years and it's clear that the population is increasing in the province, Savage said.
"That obviously accompanies the increase in numbers for cases of Lyme disease we have seen creeping up pretty much every year for the last decade," said Savage, noting tick sightings on the island of Montreal are not uncommon.
The range of blacklegged ticks has increased over the last 20 years as well, she said.
When people are bitten by a tick in some sectors of the Eastern Townships, Montérégie, Outaouais or Mauricie-et-Centre-du-Québec, preventive treatment with antibiotics can be prescribed, public health says.
The risk of developing Lyme disease is "very low" if the critter is latched on for less than 24 hours, according to Quebec public health.
A report on the situation released by INSPQ in April recommends creating one or more referral centres to support people who suspect they have Lyme disease.
Deer overpopulation may be making matters worse
The boom in white-tailed deer populations across southern Quebec may be contributing to the problem by providing so much food to ticks, experts say.
The Ministry of Wildlife now estimates this population at 250,000 head in Quebec, not including Anticosti Island. That's double what it was 30 years ago.
Half the deer live in Montérégie, Eastern Townships and Centre-du-Québec. The Eastern Townships and Montérégie are the areas with the most Lyme disease.
Jean-Pierre Tremblay, a professor in the department of biology at Université Laval, said studies in Maine, Connecticut and New York, revealed that a decrease in deer population has been associated with a decrease in ticks and Lyme disease.
This is one of several reasons why Quebec's Wildlife Ministry is working to control the deer population.
Recently the province increased the number of antlerless deer licenses, allowing more hunters to target fawns and females, said François Lebel, a government biologist.
Deer in urban areas still a challenge, MFFP says
While hunters are bagging nearly 50,000 deer every year, they aren't necessarily harvesting those living in or near urban areas, Lebel said.
"When we are overpopulated with deer, we must reduce the population, and unfortunately, to decrease it, it is by the lethal method," Lebel said.
Relocating deer often kills them, and sterilization isn't feasible, said Fanie Pelletier, a biology professor at Université de Sherbrooke.
That's why, for example, Longueuil officials opted to cull about 15 deer in Michel-Chartrand park last year rather than try to move them, but that plan was cancelled when protests erupted.
Until the early 1990s, ticks were practically non-existent in Canada, but climate change has allowed them to move in and they will likely continue to move north in the years to come, according to Dr. Jean-Pierre Vaillancourt, an epidemiologist and professor of veterinary medicine at the Université de Montréal.
"Ticks in urban areas are essentially a new thing for us," he said. "So much needs to be studied and tested to see how we can best manage this situation."
For now, he said the best thing to do is check yourself and your pets for ticks and remove them in a few hours to greatly reduce the risk of transmitting the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Dogs can be vaccinated against Lyme and parasites, but they can still transport ticks into the homes.
"Vigilance is the name of the game," he said.