Vermont's tick season is now year-round, thanks to climate change. Here's how to protect yourself
Spring is when most people start looking out for ticks in Vermont. But the state's environmental surveillance team says that might be outdated.
Patti Casey, who leads the state's annual tick surveys, says the parasites can now seek out a host for a much larger portion of the year than in prior decades.
Vermont winters are about two weeks shorter than they were in 1900, thanks to climate change. We're also seeing more thaws. And Casey says, if it's above freezing, you could get a tick.
"So tick season now, in Vermont, is 12 months," she said.
In February, Casey's team found ticks in Bennington.
You can prevent tick bites by tucking your socks into your pants and wearing long sleeves. Casey says it's a good idea to check for ticks daily if you've spent time outside.
When she comes home from a day of doing tick surveys, she puts all of her clothes in the drier on high, and takes a shower.
"That will wash away anything that might be crawling," Casey said.
After that, she does a thorough tick check, regardless of the time of year.
If it's well below freezing and there's snow on the ground, Casey says it's unlikely you'll encounter a tick.
"But if it's close to freezing, or above, you can't be sure," she said.
Casey says ticks are most prevalent below 1,500 feet of elevation, and are likely to be active at temperatures above 40 degrees Fahrenheit. Those are the features her team looks for when conducting population surveys.
Ticks also like leaf litter and vegetation at diverse heights. Blacklegged ticks, or deer ticks, seek out a host by hanging off of leaves, or blades of grass and grabbing on as they move past.
Casey says you're more likely to run into a tick if you can find evidence of an animal path, like a deer. They tend to be more common in the places where hosts are present.
A slow northward march
Data from environmental surveillance confirms: Vermont is seeing more ticks, and they're moving farther northeast every year.
"The numbers have increased pretty dramatically," Casey said.
The state has been counting ticks across Vermont since 2015, and Casey says more data is needed before scientists can pinpoint what's driving the spread — though climate change is a factor.
"I think the trend that I would be comfortable sort of standing behind is that there are more ticks and they are on a Northeasterly march," Casey said.
"... tick season now, in Vermont, is 12 months."
Climate change is making it easier for ticks to find hosts during the winter months. But Casey says forest fragmentation and suburban sprawl also create prime habitat for them.
Ticks like to live at the fringes of an ecosystem. Bennington County is where they are most dense in Vermont, but the Champlain Islands also have big populations.
Generally, the eastern part of the state has fewer ticks, Casey says, and the Northeast Kingdom has the fewest — right now.
Impact to humans
Of the 14 tick species in Vermont, five can spread disease to humans.
However, over 99% of all tickborne illnesses reported to the Vermont Department of Health are caused by deer ticks.
Casey says a little more than half of the deer ticks the state collects test positive for the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. But there's some good news: that number has held steady in recent years.
If you're bitten by a tick, you can preserve it in alcohol and mail it to the Agency of Agriculture's Passive Tick Surveillance Program to be identified. In some cases, an iPhone photo of the tick will also work.
Tickborne disease in Vermont
Despite tick activity expanding into more parts of the year, Vermont Department of Health says so far, we aren't seeing an increase in new cases of tickborne illnesses year-round.
Natalie Kwit is the State Public Health Veterinarian. She says that could still change.
"I think the short answer is: time will tell, and that's why we do surveillance," Kwit said.
Vermont usually sees the most new cases of Lyme Disease between late April and June, when blacklegged ticks — also called deer ticks — are at their tiniest.
After a mid-summer drop, emergency room visits for tick bites tend to increase again in the fall.
But Kwit says it's a good idea to be vigilant for ticks year-round — especially with climate change. But that doesn't mean you can't still enjoy the outdoors and feel safe doing so.
"Always check yourself and your pets and your children when you get in from being outside," she advised.
Kwit recommends using an Environmental Protection Agency approved tick repellent on your clothes, or treating them seasonally with promethryn. It's also important to talk to your vet about how to treat your pets for ticks.
When hiking, Kwit advises sticking to the middle of the trail. And she suggests putting your clothes in the drier on high heat for 10 minutes when you get home.
She also recommends taking a shower within two hours of being outside, followed by a tick check.
A new invasive species
As Vermont's spring turkey season approaches, state scientists are on the lookout for an invasive tick that often bites birds.
Vermont's Tick Surveillance Program is pretty sure the Lone Star Tick is in Vermont — but so far, it's largely evaded capture.
That's why Vermont Fish and Wildlife is teaming up with the Agency of Agriculture to check wild turkeys for the parasites at weigh stations this spring. Turkey season begins May 1.
The tick is common in the Southeast. It doesn't carry Lyme disease, but it does carry a sugar that causes some people to develop a severe allergy to red meat.
Called alpha-gal syndrome, the condition is irreversible.
Casey says the environmental surveillance program will check turkeys at game stations near places where the Lone Star Tick has been spotted.
"There's a good chance that Lone Star Ticks, if they're here, they've been around for a while and they've been on the turkeys," she said. "It's just that we haven't been looking for them."
Tick checks will be voluntary, and take about five minutes per bird.
Casey says it's safe to eat a turkey that has been bitten by the Lone Star Tick.
Unlike deer ticks, the Lone Star Tick hunts for a host, and can follow an animal's breath.
Like with other ticks, you can protect yourself by wearing long sleeves, tucking your pants into your socks and checking for ticks.