With springtime, the cover of snow disappears, new grass pokes through the undergrowth and ticks get busy searching for a host to supply them with a meal of blood.
Ticks are most common in the spring and summer but have been found at all times of the year.
“Ticks are active anytime the temperature goes over 4 C,” said Dr. Janet Jones, owner of the Jasper Veterinary Clinic.
“Spring is the time they’re most active, particularly in Jasper. Most of the ticks here are dermacentor ticks. That’s the Rocky Mountain wood tick (and dog tick). That’s what we have here.”
Ticks can carry Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and although it is uncommon it can cause serious illness in pets and humans.
“That’s the tick that carries Lyme disease,” Jones said.
“They have found some in Alberta. Some have been Lyme-positive over the last few years. We haven’t seen any in Jasper yet.”
But Jones noted how these ticks are enlarging their territory “quite extensively” and are becoming more of a problem as temperatures rise.
Ticks have an opportunistic way of finding a host.
“Ticks hang on bushes (and grass) and wait for something to go by and drop on the animals,” Jones said.
They hang onto bushes or grass with their back legs, which allows their front legs to stay outstretched, ready to latch on to any passing animals. This behaviour is called “questing.”
Jones said ticks recognize breath, body odors and well-used paths.
They have a four-stage life cycle that can take up to three years. Once the female has had a meal, she lays several thousand eggs that hatch into larvae and attach to a host.
“They have a blood meal,” Jones noted, and so begins the progress to the next stage. The larvae detach before they molt into nymphs, attach to a larger host, have a blood meal, detach and molt into adults. The adults attach to another host, have a blood meal, mate and drop off. The female will lay her eggs and then die.
“They only mate and reproduce once and they don’t all take that long; it depends where they are,” Jones said, adding the warmer weather is, the faster it happens.
Ticks are carriers of disease from the nymph stage. Jones noted nymphs are the most dangerous and are the size of a poppy seed, which makes them very difficult to detect.
“They take a bit of time to latch on and start feeding from two hours to a couple of days,” Jones said.
With their meal of blood, ticks swell up to 10-to-15 times larger.
“You should be checking your pets on a daily basis,” Jones said.
“You generally tend to find ticks more around the head although they can be anywhere.”
She said ticks can be found on a variety of hosts in addition to dogs and humans. They are commonly found on sheep.
To protect against ticks, check your pets and yourself regularly. Wear long pants tucked into socks, along with long sleeves, hats. Use DEET to prevent transmission of disease.
Jones noted this is imperative because if ticks are removed before they’ve been feeding for more than 24 hours than disease won’t be transmitted. Any tick found needs to be carefully removed using tweezers and better yet a specialized tick-removing device.
“Do not squeeze or crush the tick. Twist it, burn it or put any substance on it. Just gently pull straight out and check to see that you have the head.”
Nymphs are tiny but engorged females can be the size of a raisin.
“Wash the area with soap and bring the tick in a secure container to a hospital or vet clinic so it can be sent off for identification and possible testing for Lyme disease,” Jones said. “Testing and surveillance is critical for tick diseases too.”
She added there’s a program with the provincial government where you can send in ticks for identification, although it’s on hold at this time because of COVID.
Jones emphasized how preventative measures are the best.
“For dogs, there are topical medications applied to the skin or chewable tablets that last for 30 or 60 days given April through October,” she said.
“There is only one product available for cats and it is a topical. The topical medications can kill ticks before they start a blood meal but are greasy and aren’t good for dogs that live with cats or small children or who swim a lot as they need to stay out of the water for one-to-two days before and after treatment. The chewable tablets are easiest but don’t start killing the tick until it begins to feed.”
Jones noted all of the medications work the same way by attacking the nervous system of the tick, causing it to die. It is present at a higher level in insects than it is in mammals making these drugs very safe. However, if overdosed or given to those very rare animals that are more sensitive to them they can cause tremors, seizures and very rarely death.
Do not give a product labeled for dogs to cats. As well, the first time you administer one of these products do it on a day when you can observe your pet and make sure they do not have a reaction.
-With files from Fitzhugh
Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh