Whether they’re creeping eastward or hitching a ride on a migratory bird, one thing some Mid-Michigan veterinarians say is clear: The deer tick is here and in larger numbers than before.
The deer tick can infect dogs and humans with Lyme disease, which, if left untreated, causes in people a host of issues with joints, the heart and the nervous system. The tick must feed for somewhere between 24 to 48 hours in order for the disease to transmit.
Within a month of being infected, a person might experience a bull’s-eye rash near the bite, and “fever, chills, headache, fatigue, muscle and joint aches, and swollen lymph nodes,” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
While not the only tick in Michigan — there’s a more common variety in the state which doesn’t harbor Lyme disease called the American dog tick — the deer tick made headlines in the 2000s as it worked its way up the western coast of the Lower Peninsula from south of the state border.
This year, some veterinarians in the Great Lakes Bay Region and the Flint area say they’ve seen a significant increase of both country and city dogs ridden with ticks.
“I’ve been in the practice a long time, we’ve rarely saw a tick,” sais Connie Mall, a veterinarian at the Midland Animal Clinic. “That’s not the case anymore.”
Dan Deciechi, a veterinarian with the Fohey Veterinary Hospital in Clio, said this year he’s had 18 cases of ticks needing to be removed from an animal and 11 cases of tick-borne illness in an animal.
Compare this to 11 instances of pulling off ticks and three tick-borne illnesses this time last year, he said.
“For the east side of the state, this seems to be the worst I’ve seen it,” Deciechi said. “The majority of the Lyme disease dogs are those in the woods hunting, camping, but we’ve had a handful of regular backyard dogs without access to typical woods.”
Apart from Lyme disease, which is less harmful to dogs than humans, some ticks can transmit Ehrlichiosis, which Deciechi said leads to anemia in dogs.
Medications are available in chewable and topical varieties, along with those in collar form, that protect dogs and other animals from ticks.
The veterinarians who identified the tick species on the dogs said deer ticks are the majority of what they’re finding.
Some veterinarians such as Cheralyn Asa, who works at the Bangor Veterinary Clinic in Bay County, use ID cards to determine the type of tick. In the deer tick’s most troublesome phase, when they’re smallest and least noticeable, they’re about the size of a poppy seed.
“We’ve been seeing deer ticks and brown dog ticks, more deer ticks than anything else,” Asa said. “We noticed a really big jump between this year and last year. Before that, things seemed more steady.”
So far this year, five people in the Tri-Cities and Flint area have been infected with Lyme disease, said Erik Foster, a medical entomologist with the Michigan Department of Health & Human Services.
But of those five — one in Genesee County, two in Midland County and two in Saginaw County — four cases were travel-related. Investigators don’t know if the fifth person got it locally or through travel.
An August 2016 map sent out by the state’s health department that labels counties as either having a known risk of Lyme disease or a potential risk shows Genesee, Midland, Bay and Saginaw counties in the clear.
The counties bordering that group, such as Shiawassee, Gratiot and Livingston, show a potential risk for a Lyme disease problem.
Deer ticks hitchhike on migratory birds and on deer, so it’s possible for an isolated case or two in those counties dubbed no risk, Foster said.
The criterion for a county to be labelled as having a potential risk for Lyme disease is if there are “field confirmed populations of infected blacklegged ticks or laboratory confirmed human cases,” according to the health department’s risk map.
One of the reasons the state and other experts are skeptical of there being a large, thriving and breeding population of deer ticks in Mid-Michigan is that submissions to state labs for the identification of the ticks’ variety and whether they harbor Lyme disease have been low, said Michigan State University Entomologist Howard Russell.
None of the six vets contacted for this story had sent their ticks in for identification and testing.
Russell said his lab has received some ticks from the Tri-Cities and Flint area. Most have been of the dog tick varieties, but there’s been low numbers of deer ticks, he said.
“It indicates that they’re present,” he said. “I don’t think they’re a big problem yet there. I would expect they occur in very low numbers right now.”
Those who want a tick identified can send a photo of the back of a tick to Russell’s email, email@example.com. Foster said a tick submission to Russell led to the state’s health department determining there was a deer tick problem in Ingham County, which is now listed as endemic for Lyme disease.
Russell tracked the deer ticks as they moved up the Lower Peninsula’s western coast from south of the state border, then across the southern counties and now, he said, into the east.
The question of why deer tick populations have taken off in the Lower Peninsula since the 2000s but not before then is a puzzling one, Russell said.
Russell said he expects Mid-Michigan and the eastern Lower Peninsula to follow suit of the trajectory set before by deer tick populations on the western coast of the Lower and Upper Peninsulas.
“They’re here to stay, for sure,” he said. “They’re not going anywhere.”