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Posted on 04-19-2016

Pet owners who believe their pets are safe from ticks because they live in the suburbs and don’t live near open spaces are mistaken. Ticks adapt their life stages to the changing environment, shifting host preferences and timing of activity to accommodate local conditions. The relatively warm fall and this year’s moist, warm spring here in California have allowed ticks to thrive and feed from abundant hosts.

Mule deer, opossum, rabbits, small rodents and gophers commonly serve as transportation for the parasite, and now new research from the University of California at Berkeley has found ticks bearing the bacterium that causes Lyme disease on several Northern California birds.[i]  The birds in the study found to host the Lyme disease bacteria - such as robins, lesser goldfinches, titmouses, juncos, and sparrows - are species often found in suburbs.  Lyme disease spirochetes were detected in 57 of the 100 birds in the study that carried ticks. Among the ticks, 13% of the larvae and nearly 25% of the nymphs were infected with Borrelia burgdorferi, the bacteria known to cause  Lyme disease in people.

Tick-infested birds were found in all types of habitat studied, but the researchers found that chaparral correlated with the lowest counts of larvae and nymphs on birds among the ecosystems studies. Other studies have shown that there are plenty of ticks in chaparral, but that was not translating to transmission of Lyme disease bacteria in birds.

“This is important because part of the fire management strategy in this state is to remove fire-prone chaparral,” said PhD student Erica Newman. “What this means for birds is that many species that only live in chaparral are then replaced by species from other habitats, some of which we also now know are more important carriers of Lyme disease bacteria. “Our study suggests that by removing chaparral, we may be increasing the spread of Lyme disease in California,” said Newman.

Dogs and cats acquire tick infestations when they live or enter areas with actively questing ticks (in spring grass or weeds, low shrubs, or woodpiles) or in a home or kennel infested with brown dog ticks.  Ticks can be brought into the home hidden on logs for the fireplace and male ticks may transfer between co-housed pets. Our beloved companions who sit on laps while we watch TV or jump up onto our beds to snuggle with us at night may unwittingly transport ticks into direct contact with us.

Tick bites can transmit Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, or anaplasmosis – all serious diseases caused by bacteria transmitted from the mouth and gut of a tick.  A study[ii] published by Taal Levi of Oregon State University’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife suggests that changing climate patterns are changing the life cycles of ticks in a way that spurs transmission of the bacterium.  After adult ticks lay eggs in the spring, the larvae emerge in the summer. In August and September they begin looking for a host to feed on. The tick larvae are not born infected, but become infected after feeding upon an infected host. As they transform to nymphs, they normally become active the following spring. It is the nymph stage of ticks that is most dangerous for humans.

“This is where climate change comes in,” Levi explained. “When nymphs emerge months before larvae, they inoculate the host community with pathogens that the later-emerging larvae can then contract. The Lyme disease pathogen is long-lived. It will remain in the host. So an increasing gap between the nymphs feeding in the spring and the next cohort of larvae feeding in late summer will give the nymphs more time to infect the hosts with bacterium that can then be passed to the next generation of tick larvae.”

For this reason, the Companion Animal Parasite Council supports the use of year-round tick control products on pets. Seasonal use of tick-control products allows home and yard infestations to establish and permits transmission of disease agents during the nymph stage when tick activity is often not visible. Prevention can be in the forms of oral medication that combine flea, tick and often heartworm preventative, tick-repelling collars or topical applications. Be sure to use only products labeled for cats if you have cats, as the formulations used for dogs can be very toxic (often fatal) if used on cats.

During your pet’s annual wellness visit, your veterinarian will routinely screen your pet for heartworm disease, often using the Idexx 4Dx Snap Test. In addition to heartworms, this test can also identify exposure to ehrlichiosis, Lyme disease, and anaplasmosis, which are all serious diseases transmitted by ticks. 

[i] Plos One, “Borrelia burgdorferi Sensu Lato Spirochetes in Wild Birds in Northwestern California: Associations with Ecological Factors, Bird Behavior and Tick Infestation”, published 2/25/2015.

[ii] Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies, http://www.caryinstitute.org/newsroom/warmer-world-ticks-spread-disease-are-arriving-earlier-expanding-their-ranges

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