Are you ready? For tiny hitchhikers looking for a potential bloodmeal? Having just found a tick crawling along the top of my stove, and swatted hungry mosquitoes on a walk through a park, let’s put a focus on preventative measures for pets and humans. That includes learning about invisible potential foes, because even if you stayed indoors and never ever went outside, beloved animals can transport small creatures and transmissible disease right to you and your family.
“With the warm weather we are seeing more and more ticks and fleas out there and it is extremely important to protect our dogs and cats from these pests,” said Dr. Howard Asher, medical director of Beaver Brook Animal Hospital in Wethersfield. “The best way is to use reliable flea and tick prevention as well as regular heartworm protection that you can administer once a month or other types every three months.”
“Leptospirosis is definitely found all over this region and it does affect dogs as well as humans,” he said. “Mostly it affects the kidneys and the liver, which can shut down, so this can prove fatal if the disease is not caught early and treated. There is a vaccine which we recommend giving your dog to help protect them – but more importantly to help you from lepto. Because if your dog contracts leptospirosis, there is a possibility that you could get it as well.
“Lepto can be transmitted to humans through the skin by contact with the urine of an infected animal; it does not have to be through an open sore or cuts. You can actually walk barefoot in your own yard, in an area where your dog urinates – and lepto can be transmitted to you. The vaccine for lepto is a preventative that lasts for a year and does a pretty good job.”
He notes that letting your dog drink from puddles while out on a walk increases chances of contracting the disease.
Consider all the animals – wildlife and other dogs – that may travel the same paths where you and your canine take a stroll. According to the CDC, the bacteria that cause leptospirosis can get into water or soil and survive there for weeks to months. Many different kinds of wild and domestic animals carry the bacterium. “When these animals are infected, they may have no symptoms of the disease. Infected animals may continue to excrete the bacteria into the environment continuously or every once in a while for a few months up to several years.”
Now, consider the mosquito and another invisible foe.
According to the American Heartworm Society, the mosquito plays an essential role in the heartworm life cycle. Adult female heartworms living in an infected dog, fox, coyote, or wolf produce microscopic baby worms called microfilaria that circulate in the bloodstream. When a mosquito bites and takes a blood meal from an infected animal, it picks up these baby worms, which develop and mature into “infective stage” larvae over a period of 10 to 14 days. Then, when the infected mosquito bites another dog, cat, or susceptible wild animal, the infective larvae are deposited onto the surface of the animal’s skin and enter the new host through the mosquito’s bite wound. Once inside a new host, it takes approximately 6 months for the larvae to mature into adult heartworms. Once mature, heartworms can live for 5 to 7 years in dogs and up to 2 or 3 years in cats. Because of the longevity of these worms, each mosquito season can lead to an increasing number of worms in an infected pet.”
The good thing is that prevention is simple.
“The best way to prevent heartworm disease for dogs is giving a pill every 30 days. For cats, it’s a topical that you can apply every 30 days. Even though we don’t think cats contract heartworm disease, we are seeing more and more that are positive – even though they are indoor cats – because unfortunately, the mosquitos do get inside and then infect the cats.”
Then, there are ticks.
“Lyme disease is also widespread in our area,” continues Dr. Asher. “We do have multiple vaccines for Lyme, which we do recommend that all dogs get. Using a good flea and tick preventative helps. Lyme disease is spread by ticks, so by preventing the ticks from biting the dog works. If your dog contracts Lyme disease they definitely will need antiibiotics for a course of about 30 days and then there may be a need for further testing to make sure things are okay.”
Dr. Asher and his staff can treat advanced Lyme disease, most of it with supportive care and fluids and antibiotics. “The problem is what damage may have happened to the kidneys that can occur for a long period of time. If there is kidney disease we do help manage that disease to prevent it from getting worse.”
Ticks belong to the Arachnida family, a classification that includes spiders. Ticks have been around at least 90 million years and bites do not necessarily transmit harmful microbes. But the possible transmission of a range of diseases is the reason to arm yourself with knowledge and be vigilant. Get information from science and learned people who have gleaned clear-sighted understanding from years of observation, study, collaborative efforts. Connecticut is a state at the forefront of reporting the changes which have made the numbers of infected mammals – that includes humans – rise.
There are at least 11 recognized human diseases associated with ticks in the United States, seven or eight of which occur in the mid-Atlantic or northeastern states. Each of the diseases is highlighted in a section of the comprehensive Tick Management Handbook, an integrated guide for homeowners, pest control operators, and public health officials for the prevention of tick-associated disease, prepared by Kirby C. Stafford III, Chief Scientist, The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station (CAES), New Haven.
Real solutions to help deter these creatures from contact with your family and pets include understanding their life cycle. Changes and/or modifications in your landscaping and mowing practices can also help limit exposure. A daily tick check is important.
Here are some excerpts from this important book:
“Open up to direct solar exposure the part of the landscape used or traveled frequently by family members to reduce tick and small mammal habitat and cover. Bright, sunny areas are less likely to harbor ticks.”
“Altering the landscape to increase sunlight and lower humidity may render an area less hospitable to ticks. Management of the habitat should focus on the areas frequently used by the family, not necessarily the entire property. To reduce ticks adjacent to homes, prune trees, mow the lawn, remove leaf litter accumulations around the house and lawn perimeter, and cut grass, weeds, and brush along edges of the lawn, stonewalls, and driveways. Plants can be pruned to provide open space between the ground and base of the plant.”
“Ticks also may be found in groundcover such as Pachysandra. Restrict the use of groundcovers to less frequently used areas of the yard.”
“In general, ornamental grasses and ferns are browse resistant and may be good choices in sunny and moist shady areas, respectively. A number of medicinal herb varieties, ornamental herbs, and butterfly garden plants are resistant to deer browse. The most browse resistant plantings should be placed at the edges and entrances of the property and the most browse susceptible plants closer to the house or areas frequented by people and pets.”
“One component of a tick management strategy is managing deer and small rodent activity in your yard. Some landscaping practices discussed in the previous section can also help manage key animals in the landscape. Stonewalls, woodpiles, and dense vegetation can harbor rodents.”
“If a property is large enough, a separate wildlife and tick- managed zone could possibly be maintained. The objective of a tick management program is to discourage activity of several key tick hosts and create a physical and/or chemical barrier between woodland habitat and areas the family uses most frequently.”
The handbook includes clear and precise information about the use and application of pesticides. There is also a section on backyard wildlife programs and environmentally friendly lawns.
This sentence sums up a mighty goal: “How can the desire to have a more natural, environmentally-friendly habitat be balanced with the need to reduce contact with animals carrying ticks and the creation of a tick safe zone?” Indeed.
Note: Dr. Kirby Stafford is a medical-veterinary entomologist whose research focuses on the ecology and control of the blacklegged tick. He received his B.S. in entomology and M.S. in veterinary entomology from Colorado State University and Kansas State University, respectively, and his Ph.D. in medical/veterinary entomology from Texas A&M University in 1985. After working at Penn State on a poultry pest management project, he joined the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station in 1987. Dr. Stafford became Chief Scientist and Head of the Department of Forestry and Horticulture in 1997. Anyone interested in integrated landscaping and information on field research can contact CAES directly or plan to attend the annual CAES Plant Science Day, Aug. 5 at Lockwood Farm in Hamden. Free admission and an incredible opportunity to connect with the work of world-class scientists. For additional information about tick-borne diseases in the U.S., visit the CDC website.