It’s Never Too Early to Worry About Ticks

In February, at least in the upper Great Plains, winter still holds us firmly in its grip. Bone-aching cold temperatures leave many of us in northern climes gazing longingly at Facebook posts from friends and family in southern California, Arizona and Florida.

Right now at our Omaha headquarters, you wouldn’t think you’d need to worry about ticks. After all, it’s cold outside and ticks don’t like the cold any more than I do. Right? But they have a few survival tricks, meaning that vigilance is the best defense. (Our friends down South have to be on guard year round.)

There are a couple of reasons for vigilance, and much of it is due to the life cycle of ticks.

Before we get into that, let’s just remind ourselves: ticks are parasites. They feed on blood and are not just a nuisance to us and our pets, but they can also transmit disease pathogens such as Lyme disease.

Ticks want blood — plain and simple. There’s about only one time in their life when they don’t: while in in the egg form. But as soon as they hatch into six-legged larvae, they are looking for their first host (and first blood meal.) Ticks are tiny at this stage and generally looking for a smaller host, say rodents or birds, but they won’t turn down a meal from something larger.

After the first blood meal, the larvae drop off to the ground and then molt into a nymph form. Still small, but now eight-legged, they are again looking for a blood meal. Once found, they feed until engorged, drop off, molt again and emerge as an adult, ready to feed…and breed.

But here’s the deal. That tick life cycle can vary, depending on the species of tick and the environment where they live. Many ticks in the northeastern part of the U.S. can take two to three years to live through their life cycle, going dormant as larvae and nymphs. But the adults? They don’t hibernate and, if you experience a warm up during winter — say, an unseasonable 70 degree day — those adults will become active and look for a warm body for a ride and a bite.

That means if you’ve been housebound and there’s a sudden break in weather, and you decide to go for a walk outdoors with your favorite canine, either one of you could bring home an unwanted guest. And if you have cats that live outdoors, or come in and out of the house, they can pick up ticks, too.

If you reside where the weather is typically temperate most of the year, ticks are a constant threat. Regardless of where you live, there are a couple of steps to take.

First, make sure that you and your favorite pet are protected. Apply a monthly flea and tick topical that kills ticks fast and stops the reinfestation cycle (but be sure to only apply dog products to dogs, and cat products to cats!) Apply the appropriate human insect repellent to yourself before venturing into areas that are good tick habitat (woodlands, tall grass/brush areas near woodlands, etc.). Be sure to check yourself and your pet after walking outdoors and promptly remove any ticks you find.

You can also take steps to make sure that your own property is not tick or flea friendly.

Just remember: ticks are opportunistic, so don’t think it’s too early to prevent a close encounter of the tick kind!

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