I want to talk ticks - well, actually, I don't want to talk ticks - but they're on my mind a lot. This season seems to be particularly bad for these nasty little critters. This past winter when it was so very cold for such a long stretch, I was so hopeful that it would decimate the tick population. Instead, I've read that the snow blanket preceding the cold snap protected ticks from a sure and frozen death. Darn!
Hardly a day goes by that I don't find a tick on my dog Larry - who loves bounding through the woods on our daily walks. I sometimes find them on him when he hasn't been anywhere but our own back yard. Twice I've found ticks crawling on me (ick!). As creepy as these guys are, it's important to learn about them, so we can avoid them as much as possible.
I found a wealth of information at the University of Rhode Island "Tick Encounter Resource Center" (TERC) at Tickencounter.org that clarified and challenged many of my own misunderstandings about ticks. Here are some of the more common misconceptions and the corresponding reality.
-- Ticks are picked up when they fall from trees or jump on you as you pass by. Because I usually find ticks on my dogs' heads, behind their ears or somewhere higher up on their bodies, I had always thought that the ticks jumped or fell on them or were picked up when the dogs ran through long weeds and grass. Not true. Ticks don't jump or hop, and they don't float in the air. The reason we find them higher up on our pets is that they climb vertically. Ticks live in damp places, such as leaf litter, and climb upward to wait for a host. They require moisture, so when they start to dry out, they burrow into the damp leaves to rehydrate. Without moisture, ticks desiccate, which seems to me like a lovely end for them.
-- Ticks can live in your house for days. Not unless they're on a host. Because they need moisture, a tick won't survive in relative humidity less than about 90 percent. They can survive on damp clothing you take off and throw in a hamper, so TERC recommends putting your dirty clothes in the dryer for 15 minutes when you get back from a hike.
-- Tick heads burrow under the skin. When removing a tick, it is important to take out the entire tick, but the only part in the skin is the mouthpart (called hypostome). If that doesn't pull out with the tick, it will be ejected like a small splinter. A red bump might develop in the area, and if you remove a tick from yourself, keep an eye on the area in case the tick emitted a disease-causing pathogen such as Lyme disease while it was feeding.
-- Ticks can be removed by covering them with a soapy cotton ball, smothering them with Vasoline, etc., causing the tick to pull out on its own. Not according to TERC, which tried many different ways to remove ticks. It found the only way that worked was to pull the tick out, preferably with pointy, needle-nose tweezers. There are tick-removal gadgets that are useful for removing dog ticks - a larger species - but are not effective in removing deer ticks that can be smaller than a sesame seed.
Next week I'll write about tick prevention and some thoughts on tick disposal.
Gail Fisher, author of "The Thinking Dog," runs All Dogs Gym & Inn in Manchester. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or write c/o All Dogs Gym, 505 Sheffield Road, Manchester, NH 03103.