By Monica Jimenez / Wicked Local Chelmsford
The most common of these is Lyme disease. Although the tick-borne illness was once confined to the coastal areas of the state, nowadays many Chelmsford residents know someone who has had it. Board of Health Director Richard Day said the number of cases in the state increases every year, but the experience hasn’t made it much easier to diagnose the disease.
“The problem is that Lyme disease mimics so many other things,” Day said. “It creates symptoms dozens of things could cause. People have a tendency to ignore it until they feel something may really be wrong.”
Associate Veterinarian C.J. Churchill of the Chelmsford Countryside Animal Clinic said the challenge is the same with pets, with an added difficulty.
“The hard part is deer ticks are so small even when they’re engorged, and they can burrow deep into the coat,” Churchill said.
Churchill and Day agreed the key to combating Lyme disease is education. Awareness and preparation can go a long way toward keeping ticks at bay, or if infected, seeking treatment early enough to avoid a long, painful summer.
Know your enemy
The first step is to know the enemy. Lyme disease, which is carried by the deer tick, is the big one for veterinarians and health professionals. This is partly because with no natural predators to pare it down, the deer population in the state has been increasing and migrating inland — and bringing deer ticks along for the ride.
“The tick population is all around you,” Day said. “They’re out and they’re hungry and they’re looking for food.”
Ticks seek hosts by “questing” — climbing to the tops of tall grass blades or the outside of thick brush, extending their clawed legs and hooking onto anything warm and hairy that happens along.
The ticks are particularly bad this time of year, Day said, because the weather has warmed up but people haven’t gotten around to curbing the unruly spring growth where ticks thrive. He urged people to mow their lawns and keep woodland plants from creeping toward the house.
Day said dogs and cats, fur-covered and prone to nosing through overgrown areas, often bring in the first ticks of the season.
“They have more propensity to go around, go through the underbrush and come into contact with bushes,” Day said. “And they tend to stick their faces into the bushes.”
Churchill recommends checking a pet’s face, head, neck and behind the ears, as well as its non-haired areas like the abdomen or between the legs. But problem areas vary between breeds, she said.
More and more animals are coming into the clinic with symptoms of Lyme disease, Churchill reported, which include lameness, lethargy, and vomiting. But they are also coming in with longer-term conditions that can be related to the tick-borne illness, Churchill said, such as kidney disease.
Long-term Lyme disease effects are a problem among humans as well as their pets, according to the federal Center for Disease Control (CDC). An online CDC resource for Lyme disease says the untreated infection can cause arthritis, sleep disturbance and cognitive defects persisting for years after infection.
According to the CDC site, however, more immediate symptoms start with the notorious “target rash” or erythema migrans. Spotting the rash early means avoiding more serious symptoms later on, Day said, which is why it’s important to pay close attention to your person – especially when going outside.
“You need to do a body check every time you go out, even if it’s difficult or you think you don’t have to,” Day said.
Day also recommends spraying your pant legs before going outside, and the Epidemiology Program of the state Department of Public Health advises people to wear a light-colored, long-sleeved shirt and long pants tucked into socks — and to spray it all, if possible.
Other than that, Day said, preventative options for ticks have traditionally been limited.
“In terms of pest control, there’s some, but not a lot,” Day said. “You can’t just go out and buy tick control.”
But as the tick problem has worsened, people have gotten creative. New strategies for keeping these pests out of the yard address not the plant life, but the animal life. Although deer tend to avoid people, Day said, the ticks they carry find their way onto small mammals like mice and chipmunks, which do get close to humans — and which can be controlled in some ways.
One method involves applying animal-friendly pesticide to cotton balls and putting them outside. Animals snatch these up to line their nests and roll around in, Day said, which keeps them from picking up ticks. Another strategy is to set up a box containing food at the end of a treatment-coated “tunnel.”
But these new methods are still being tweaked and are not yet widespread. What it all comes down to at the moment, Day said, is knowing what’s out there and being ready for it.
“The only thing you can change is education,” Day said. “We try to tell people they’ve got to be aware so that first of all they’ll monitor and check themselves and second of all if they look down and see a big red bull’s eye, they know to see a doctor.”
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