TRAVERSE CITY — They’re tiny. They’re tricky and they’re out for blood.
Northern Michigan’s growing population of bloodthirsty ticks lie in wait in fields, forests and backyards, putting people and pets at risk for diseases.
Twenty known tick species infiltrate Michigan. Their bite, depending on species, can spread Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain fever and other bacterial infections.The most dangerous culprit is the blacklegged tick.
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services report 15 percent of the blacklegged ticks studied tested positive for Lyme. Left untreated, Lyme infection in humans, pets and other mammals may spread to joints, the heart, and/or the nervous system.
Blacklegged ticks, first identified in the Lower Peninsula in 2002, have migrated north along the Lake Michigan coast and inland. MDHHS identifies Grand Traverse, Benzie and Leelanau counties as Lyme risk areas. Antrim and Kalkaska counties are rated as having potential for Lyme.
The region’s peak tick season generally ranges from May through August, but mild winters, more friendly to tick life, may be extending the risk period and reproduction success.
“I’ve been here 16 years, and this is by far the worst season I’ve seen up here ever,” said Northwood Animal Hospital veterinarian Jennifer Klabunde. “In the past three weeks, I’ve had five Lyme-positive dogs. That’s more than we’ve had in a whole season.”
Klabunde said even pet owners in urban settings shouldn’t let their guard down.
“I’ve had a 5-pound dog that lives in downtown Traverse City, and who has never left the pavement, have ticks on them,” she said.
Klabunde recommends use of tick prevention products, but points out not all over-the-counter products are equal. She said obtaining tick prevention products from a veterinarian ensures efficacy. She also advises dogs receive the Lyme vaccine; an advantage people are without.
Visual and hands-on pet tick checks and removal of ticks can prevent disease. MDHHS advises pet owners to look for hidden ticks around ears, chest, underbelly, legs, feet and between toes and tail.
Klabunde counsels pet owners to contact their veterinarian if they discover an attached tick on their pet.
It’s not only pets experiencing more tick issues this year. Risk appears increased for humans as well. Benzie-Leelanau District Health Department’s environmental sanitarian Xavier Gagné said a rise in human tick encounters may result from COVID-19 prompting greater numbers of people to seek outdoor recreation, and/or the result of increased tick populations.
Gagné describes ticks as “lazy little bugs” who lurk in vegetation waiting for a mammal to cross their path.
“If you go into the woods, be prepared, they like warm blooded animals,” he said.
The ticks’ secret weapon keeps their victims unaware they have climbed onboard. According to the Centers for Disease Control, ticks secrete saliva with anesthetic properties so that the host can’t feel the tick has attached itself.
President of the Michigan Lyme Disease Association Linda Purdy said last year Michigan reported record numbers of Lyme cases. Purdy has first-hand knowledge of the disease.
She contracted Lyme at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 1989 and struggled for three years to get a correct diagnosis, which in early stages may be misdiagnosed as COVID-19, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis or other conditions.
Arming people with tick and Lyme prevention information is an ongoing challenge she said.
“After 30 years, people still don’t remove a tick properly,” Purdy said. “If they did, they could save themselves from Lyme.”
MDHHS advises tick checks for anyone spending time outdoors, even your own backyard. Check ears, hair, under the arm, inside the belly button, around the waist, between legs and back of the knees.
Learn how to prevent tick bites, identify ticks, when to consult a physician and other tips at michigan.gov/documents/emergingdiseases/resize_307382_7.pdf.