If you think you’re noticing more ticks than normal this spring, you may be on to something. But fear not, because these aren’t the ticks that carry Lyme disease. Experts say the species that’s having a big year is the American dog tick. Woof!
“They’re bigger, they’re easy to see and they come in with your pets and on your clothing so you see them inside, which tends to be something that most people are not happy about,” said Tom Mather, who leads the Tick Encounter program at the University of Rhode Island. The program collects citizen reports of tick sightings.
Mather said they're hearing about more dog ticks now than in the past few years, which could be one reason people may think it’s a bad tick year overall.
Other species, like the Lyme-carrying black-legged tick, don't appear to be more common this year than normal. Sightings were down in May, which Mather said tends to be the “tickiest” time of year.
But more ticks than normal were spotted in April. Those sightings began slightly earlier than normal, potentially thanks to the warm start to spring in some areas, Mather said.
As weather patterns shift due to climate change, tick populations are expected to increase in new places. But Mather said it’s hard to pinpoint those trends on a seasonal, hyperlocal basis.
In general, he said it’s more likely that people feel like they're seeing black-legged and other tick species in new places because white-tailed deer are spreading into more densely developed areas, helping ticks breed in the kind of parklands that see heavier use by people.
“People that would have never seen these ticks are seeing them because they’re seeing deer on a regular basis,” he says. “Deer are starting to really move into even peri-urban areas.”
His research shows folks have also been going outside in new ways amid the COVID-19 pandemic – venturing farther down or off their normal trails, or visiting new places and finding ticks where they go.
To stay healthy, Mather says people should learn to differentiate the tick species they find. The dog ticks that your pets bring in from the yard, for example, won’t expose you to Lyme disease, and are less likely to be vectors for other illnesses.
About 1% of dog ticks may carry a risk of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Mather said, compared to black-legged ticks with Lyme rates of about 25% in nymphs and up to 50% in adults.
“So it’s really important [to be able to tell the difference] from an anxiety standpoint, from a running-to-the-doctor standpoint, from a taking antibiotics prophylactically [standpoint],” he said.
Mather noted that more people in Northern New England may soon start seeing Lone Star ticks, a southern species that’s spreading in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Lone Star ticks could move north due to warming temperatures.
Lone Star ticks are distinguished by a painful bite and fast speed, which Mather said some people may find alarming on first encounter. But they're less of a vector for disease.