How Weather Plays a Role in Tick Outbreaks

June 9, 2015

ticks Katie BradyBy Linda Cole

Just the mention of ticks causes a tingling on the back of your neck. An afternoon hike in the woods can end with a thorough search through your dog’s coat and your hair to make sure none of those bloodsuckers hitched a ride. Some years are worse than others, and weather plays a big role in how bad a tick outbreak might be and when tick season begins.

Ticks are found everywhere in the United States, and which species you encounter depends on where you live. There are four stages in the life cycle of ticks: egg, larvae (smaller than a period), nymph (size of a pinhead), and adult. It takes two years for them to develop into adults, and except for the egg stage, each stage requires a blood meal before it can molt into the next one. Females can lay around 3,000 eggs.

Ticks do not die off during the winter months. To survive the cold and snow, most ticks find shelter in leaf litter and are dormant until spring. However, adult deer ticks (black-legged ticks) remain active year round. You or your pet could pick up a hitchhiker anytime the air temperature is close to freezing or above and the ground isn’t frozen or snow covered. In freezing weather, deer ticks hunker down under the snow in leaf litter, on firewood or a tree trunk, and come out during warm spells. If you find a tick inside during the winter, it probably hitched a ride on firewood.

An unusually cold winter most likely won’t kill off a substantial number of ticks since most species are dormant. A milder winter won’t create a larger tick population, but it can change the normal behavior of deer ticks that are active and looking for aticks Fairfax host whenever the temperature rises above 32 degrees.

Ticks found in winter and early spring were born the previous year. Nymphs are dormant during the winter months and become active in the spring. Adult females lay their eggs  in the spring also. During a warmer spring, it’s possible for them to hatch a week or so earlier. However, the key to tick population is how many survive, which is dependent on the relative humidity and weather for the next few months. A humid spring has the potential to create a tick outbreak in early summer instead of late summer because it gives newly hatched eggs a greater chance of surviving – increasing the tick population. A dry, cooler spring could kill some of the larvae off before they find a host.

Another factor in tick population is the number of mice and deer from the previous summer, because both are favorite hosts for ticks at each stage. Larger populations of mice and deer mean more hosts. Ticks will also find a blood meal on birds, other animals and humans.

Climate change and global warming can both have an impact on tick populations in certain regions of the US, by speeding up and extending their developmental cycle, causing an increase in eggs which increases the tick population. More ticks put us and our pets at greater risk of tick borne diseases, especially Lyme disease.

Ticks can’t fly or jump, and don’t drop down on a host from trees. They climb up on fence posts or vegetation and wait patiently to hitch a ride on an unsuspecting human or animal passing by. Flea and tick prevention products are effective at keeping both off your pet, but make sure you use the proper product for your pet. Never put a flea and tick product made for dogs on cats, and never use an insecticide spray meant for use on humans or clothing on dogs or cats.

The best and safest way to remove a tick is with tweezers. Grab it as close to the skin as possible and slowly pull straight back. If you pull off the head don’t panic. Once the tick is removed it can’t continue to transmit pathogens and the bite wound should heal on its own. Don’t toss the tick down the toilet or sink; that won’t kill it and it could crawl back out. After it’s been removed, kill the tick by putting it in rubbing alcohol. Forget the old wives’ tales (a hot match, petroleum jelly, baby oil, nail polish etc.) on how to remove a tick. They don’t work and could harm your pet. Watch your pet for any adverse reactions like vomiting, weakness, rapid heart rate or excessive drooling.

Top photo by Katie Brady/Flickr
Bottom photo courtesy of Fairfax County/CA Dept. of Public Health

Read more articles by Linda Cole

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