TICK TALK – Pet lovers win a few battles, but ticks winning the war
By Dr. Marty Becker and Gina Spadafori
ATLANTA — Spot a flea or two on your dog or cat, and the reaction is likely to be a slight shudder and a mental note to check the calendar to see if it’s time for the monthly application of a few magic drops between the shoulder blades.
But spot a tick or two on your pet, and the reaction is more likely to be a string of swear words, or even a scream.
There’s something about those nasty eight-legged pests that evokes a visceral reaction and does more than trigger a desire for parasite control: The sight of a tick, says internationally known flea and tick expert Dr. Michael Dryden of Kansas State University, makes pet owners dream of a nuclear option able to annihilate the blood-sucking pests in as complete and painful a way as possible.
And if possible, by yesterday.
Says Dr. Dryden, affectionately known as “Dr. Flea” in veterinary and academic circles, don’t hold your breath. That’s because the range and numbers of North America’s tick species — about a dozen of them — just keep growing, along with the populations of deer and wild turkey that serve as their primary targets.
“When I started studying ticks, I didn’t know I needed to study deer,” Dr. Dryden said at the American Veterinary Medical Association’s recent convention in Atlanta. “But where there are deer, there are ticks. When I was growing up, we used to stop and stare in amazement when we saw a deer. Now, you only stop if you hit one.”
The explosion of deer populations means that ticks are everywhere — and in mild climates, they’re a year-round problem that’s not getting better and and likely won’t.
Aggressive hunting and deforestation had decimated deer and turkey populations by the beginning of the last century, said Dr. Dryden, noting that the deer populations of the United States and Canada fell below 300,000 before legislation banned the mass slaughter of game animals — and the U.S. alone is now approaching 28 million deer.
Add increases in the number of deer and wild turkey — perfect hosts for juvenile ticks, noted Dr. Dryden — to the successful efforts to regrow forests, as well as a mobile human population that loves to be where the wild things are, and, well, the good news for ticks just keeps coming.
“It’s a numbers game,” said Dr. Dryden, who said the problem widely thought to be resistance to tick-control products is really a matter of those products being overwhelmed. In some areas, a dog can pick up one tick per minute on a simple walk, and if a spot-on product eliminates all but a couple of them, the dog’s owner will consider it a failure.
“Tick control isn’t like flea control,” he said. “People want to have ticks eliminated and repelled, and that’s just not possible.”
Still, he says, some products seem to do better in different regions against different tick populations, making it worthwhile to ask your veterinarian which product works best in your area. For the ticks that remain — and there will always be ticks, ticks and more ticks — picking them off with tweezers or a tick-removal tool immediately after a walk remains the best defense against the parasites. On your property, keep grasses cut low, leaf piles cleaned up and spray under shrubs and along the fence lines, where ticks are waiting for you and your pets.
That, or avoid the areas where ticks are heaviest from spring through fall.
“Sometimes, the only thing I can advise is that you can’t take your dog where you’ve been taking your dog,” said Dr. Dryden.