Global Warming and Ticks: A Growing Threat

If you think of animals affected by climate change, your first thought might be of polar bears. These massive predators are among the top contenders of those affected by rising world-wide temperatures.

But a number of species are believed to be affected. One of those is much closer to home and poses a bigger threat to you and your family. Thousands of times smaller than a polar bear, this little bloodsucker can carry a bacteria that can lead to up to $1.3 billion a year to treat!

Recent studies have indicated that warmer spring temperatures in the northeastern U.S. have led to a change in when blacklegged ticks, a.k.a. deer ticks, (a carrier of Lyme disease) emerge to feed.

Additionally, studies are showing that climate change is affecting the areas where these ticks live, allowing them to move into new geographic areas.

The studies were based on 19 years of data from the Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies at Millbrook, N.Y., and published in a special edition of the Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society B.

In a paper co-authored by Dr. Richard S. Ostfeld, ecologist at the Cary Institute, Ostfeld and his team found evidence that blacklegged tick nymphs were feeding earlier in the spring. In simplest terms, that means that people need to be “tick vigilant” earlier than ever before.

Additionally, a second study by Ostfeld and Dr. Jesse L. Brunner of Washington State University looked at how climate warming influenced the geographic distribution of ticks, particularly Ixodes ticks (also carriers of Lyme disease.) Ordinarily limited by cold temperatures, the study found that warming climates are leading to Ixodes ticks moving to formerly colder areas.

Ticks seek blood meals at each of three stages in their life — larva, nymph and adult. While they are born without the Borrelia burgorferi bacteria, tiny six-legged larval nymphs will seek out small mammals that do carry the bacteria, which causes Lyme disease. Once infected with the bacteria, ticks can then transmit the bacteria to humans — or dogs — in later stages of their life.

In our pets, Lyme disease can manifest in a number of symptoms and conditions, most notably lameness, but severe cases can result in kidney damage and damage to the heart and nervous system.

In humans, Lyme disease can vary from the notable “bull’s eye” rash to fatigue, flu-like symptoms (chills, fever, headache, body aches) and swollen lymph nodes. More severe cases may linger for weeks following the bite and can include Bell’s (facial) palsy, headaches and neck stiffness due to meningitis, pain and swelling in the large joints, and even heart palpitations and dizziness. In most cases, a prompt diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics and the disease is “cured.”

However, a new study has indicated that for some patients (up to 20 percent) will have lingering problems with the illness, sometimes for years after the initial diagnosis. It can be referred to as “post-treatment Lyme disease syndrome (PTLDS)” or chronic Lyme disease. Research from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health indicates that Lyme disease is estimated to cost the U.S. healthcare system up to $1.3 billion a year to treat, due in part to the lingering effects of the disease in some patients. In some cases, those diagnosed with Lyme disease were going back to their health care provider with persistent symptoms and getting retreated, even years afterward.

What does all this mean to you?

  • First: climate change means ticks are emerging earlier looking for blood meals, posing more of a threat to you and your pets.
  • Second: climate change is also leading some tick species that can carry Lyme disease to new geographic areas, posing new risks to new human populations.
  • Third: the cost of Lyme disease is higher than anticipated, both in terms of human pain and suffering and the cost to the medical system.

What can you do?

Take steps to avoid tick bites when you are outside; make your habitat inhospitable to ticks; and treat your pets with a topical that helps fight ticks that can carry Lyme disease.

While I’d hate to come face-to-face with a hungry polar bear, chances are much, much higher that I’ll encounter a hungry (and infected) tick. And that’s one battle I can actually win!




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