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As a kid growing up in rural Nova Scotia, I quickly learned ticks were dangerous, perennial pests.

I had a cousin with a hearing impairment and was convinced it was due to a tick burrowing in their ear. No amount of patient medical explanations would convince me otherwise; I worried often about the little vermin creeping into one of my body’s dark nooks and setting up a nursery.

Even though my rationale was a bit off, I was right to loathe ticks. And the danger has evolved. 

NO MORE TICK SEASON

During my 1980s boyhood, ticks were a seasonal nuisance. Spring and autumn are still the most dangerous times (they don’t like the dryness and heat of high summer), but the hazard looms year-round in much of Atlantic Canada.

Dr. Vett Lloyd, head of the Lloyd Tick Lab at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B., answers simply when asked if the climate crisis accounts for the shift.

“Yup,” she says. “Climate change is the big factor. It used to be we had enough snow in the winter that the ticks would starve before they could find something to eat. I’m particularly concerned this year. We had a mild fall and a late snowpack. Ticks got an extra meal in in the fall and an extra round of egg-laying.”

A female tick can lay 3,000 eggs per clutch, so that’s going to make a big difference in the tick population.

ABOUT THOSE PATHOGENS

Tick bites are usually painless; your problem is what comes with them, especially if they latch on and feed.

“Ticks are a really good way of moving pathogens from animals to people and pathogens are always lurking in wild,” Lloyd explains. “A mild winter is good for mice. The mice keep moving around, and mice are chockful of pathogens and other nasty things … There are more opportunities for human and tick encounters, and when they happen to you, it’s a major problem.”

One of the nastiest of those pathogens causes Lyme disease. Usually, a red bullseye rash surrounds a bite from a Lyme-carrying tick. If you have that, see a doctor immediately. The longer you delay treatment, the longer recovery takes.

Lyme is a smorgasbord of suffering that includes (but isn’t limited to): rash, fever, chills, headache, fatigue, joint and muscle aches, and lymph-node swelling.

But wait — there’s more! Leave Lyme untreated, and you can look forward to months of severe headaches, more rashes (painful ones this time), facial paralysis, irregular heartbeat, joint pain, and nervous system disorders, including dizziness, confusion, memory loss, nerve pain, and numbness or tingling in the extremities. 

A LIFE-CHANGING ILLNESS

Amanda Millar, from Murray River, P.E.I., knows Lyme’s toll firsthand. The mother of two contracted the disease around December 2016.

“I thought I was getting the flu,” she recalls. “I was feverish, and my head felt funny. I was waiting it out, but I asked around and no one seemed to feel the same, so I started to worry.”

She’s unsure when she became infected. “I didn’t know anything about ticks or Lyme disease,” she says. “I never thought about it. I didn’t have a rash and don’t recall a tick bite.”

As Millar’s symptoms dragged on, she saw numerous doctors, who were unable to diagnose her ailment. Finally, she travelled to British Columbia, where a specialist identified the disease and began treatment. When caught quickly, Lyme is relatively easy to manage and treat. But if a person is infected for months, as Millar was, it’s much worse. She had to give up her job on her husband’s lobster boat, and years later still doesn’t feel recovered.

“Every day is different,” she says. “Every day there are different symptoms. I feel a lot better than I was … You never know what you’re going experience. You feel so alone when you’re trying to figure out what’s wrong.”

There is one small bonus to her experience: a couple of years ago her teenage son also contracted the disease and, with her familiarity with the symptoms, she was able to help him get medical care much faster than she did. 

“All his doctor wanted to diagnose him with was anxiety,” she recalls. “After umpteen tests and trying meds for anxiety, he finally came back positive for Lyme disease. He wasn’t sick for nearly as long as I’ve been. If you catch it quickly enough, you go to remission quickly.”

FURRY FRIENDS

Ticks and the pathogens they carry are especially dangerous to outdoor dogs and cats.

Catriona Fitzgerald and 22-year-old daughter Brianna live in a wooded suburban Halifax neighbourhood with three dogs, who they often walk on the sylvan trails. After a stroll in November 2020, Brianna found an engorged tick on the kitchen floor.

They contacted a veterinarian for advice. Without knowing which dog was the carrier, the vet wanted to test all three. But no appointments were available for six weeks, Halifax was in the midst of a COVID lockdown, the dogs appeared fine, and vet bills are expensive, so they decided it was unnecessary.

In February, Brianna’s 10-year-old chihuahua, Isabelle, developed a limp during a walk, which they chalked up to overexertion.

“The next morning, Brianna woke up and shrieked for me because Isabelle was paralyzed in all four legs,” Catriona says. “She wasn’t moving at all. We went to the emergency clinic. Brianna was in tears. Isabelle tested positive for Lyme, so they put her on strong meds.”

The dog remained paralyzed for three trying days. “At one point, I thought she had passed,” Brianna says. “She was so cold and unresponsive. She’s my world; it was horrible.”

As the medication took hold, Isabelle improved. But there were setbacks. The strong anti-Lyme treatment triggered pancreatitis, leading to more illness and vet bills. A milestone in her convalescence came when she hopped on the love seat to join the other dogs in their favourite neighbourhood-watching perch. Today, Isabelle is healthy, active, and happy.

“We know that we are the lucky ones because she seems to be 100 per cent now,” says Catriona. “We have to have her checked now and then for her liver, but it seems as though everything is fine.”

Brianna often inspects the dogs for ticks and is an entomology student at Dalhousie University, studying the pests full-time. “I’ve always loved insects,” she says. “Mom used to check my lunchbox when I came home from school to see if I brought bugs home … This experience didn’t spark that, but it’s made me interested in ticks specifically.”

They now assume ticks are active year-round, and give the dogs 12-month preventative treatments, instead of the six-month treatments that used to be common.

Lloyd applauds that shift.

“We have better tools for pets than we do for humans because they’re more at risk,” she says. “For dogs and cats, there are edibles or squirts for their neck that work very well. You have to apply them year-round. Those products will also get rid of fleas, which is an added bonus. They’re an excellent solution.”

 

STAND ON GUARD

After spending time outdoors, get someone to look you over or check a long mirror. “You’re looking for freckles that weren’t there before,” Lloyd says. “If you see them, check them closely. If they have legs, they’re ticks, and you need to remove them as quickly as you can.” 

There are different types of ticks, but tiny deer ticks are the most common, and the most likely to carry the Lyme-causing pathogen. Lloyd’s lab can pinpoint the type for you, but to avoid disease, time is key, so assume the worst.

“Get the tick off you before you worry about identifying it,” says Lloyd. “There’s really no such thing as a good tick.”

People will often smother the ticks in Vaseline, dowse them in kerosene, or kill them with a burnt match before removal, but she doesn’t recommend that. “As the tick dies, it will regurgitate into you, and give you an extra dose of pathogens,” she says. “Just grab tweezers and pull it off. It’s not going to hurt. Keep the tick and freeze it in case you need to test it later.” And for reasons that should be obvious but apparently aren’t, if you do use kerosene, don’t then try to burn the tick off with a match.

As the climate continues to change, don’t assume that an area that was previously tick-free has no new interlopers. 

HOLD YOUR GROUND

Nova Scotia has more ticks per person than anywhere else in Canada, according to Lloyd, and the South Shore, where warmer and shorter winters are having a big effect, is ground zero. At Heritage Landscape Services in Lunenburg, owner and horticulturalist Pamela Baltzer has advice, which the Lloyd Lab shares on its website, to help owners anywhere make their properties less hospitable for the pests. The following is paraphrased from her suggestions.

Neat and tidy. Ticks move little on their own, so eliminate nearby cool, moist places where they can breed. If you store firewood, pile it on crushed gravel with the wood tiered on pressure-treated planks or metal bars to reduce trapped moisture. Bonus: This also lets your wood cure and burn better. 

No free rides. Keep waste bins secure to deter tick-carriers like raccoons and rats. Compost heaps are ideal tick habitat: place them as far from the house as possible. Eschew bird feeders or only put them on the edges of your property. Keep high-traffic areas, like around the front walk, mowed short. Remove leaf litter, fallen branches, needles, and low-hanging limbs near frequently used areas.

Build barriers. Create a gravel or bark mulch buffer between your gardens and your house. Remove plants that are close to the house. Fence your yard (or if it’s a big one, the part you use most) to keep out deer. In your gardens, use raised planters plus quality landscape fabric and bark or stone mulch. Old-fashioned stone walls look lovely, but cracks and gaps riddle them: ideal habitat for small mammals and the ticks who love them. Hardscape walls, built over structural drainage bases and using engineered blocks, eliminate those gaps. Finish paths with gravel or paver stones. 

Plant with purpose. Consult with a local expert to choose the tick-resistant plants best suited for your climate and garden conditions. Garlic, sage, lavender, rosemary, and marigold are among the most popular. (Mint is also proven effective, but spreads like wildfire, so keep it in pots unless you want to cede your gardens to it.) Whatever you choose, plant a lot in high concentration to create a wall of defence. Omit sprawling, thorny plants that provide damp, cool shelter from predators where ticks can breed with impunity.

LIVE YOUR LIFE

It’s a lot to absorb, but none of this means that you should avoid the great outdoors. “Absolutely get out and enjoy the nice weather,” says Lloyd. “But ticks will also be celebrating, so just take these precautions.”

After all, knowledge is power.

“Learning more about ticks has made me both more and less scared,” says Brianna. “Nova Scotia has the highest percentage of Lyme-carrying deer ticks, which is really scary. But I’ve learned that it takes more time for them to latch on (than most people think), and there’s a lot you can do to protect yourself and your pets.”     

WHY NO VAX? 

Given the fast-spreading danger of Lyme disease, one wonders why we don’t vaccinate against it. “We did have a vaccine a few years ago,” says Dr. Vett Lloyd. “It was the first generation of Lyme vaccine, and it’s still available for pets, but for people it was withdrawn because it didn’t make a good business case, which often happens in the pharmaceutical business… There’s a second generation of Lyme vaccine for humans in clinical trials, and in the fullness of time, it’ll be certified in the U.S. and eventually in Canada.”  

DRESS FOR SUCCESS 

Precaution starts with your clothing. In spring and autumn especially, choose long sleeves and pants. 

Wear closed-toe shoes and high socks in wooded and grassy areas. Brianna Fitzgerald is a summer guide on historic McNabs Island in Halifax Harbour. She recalls one visitor who brought a dog, which she offered to check for ticks. She found 50. 

“I always wear pants and shoes there now, no matter how hot it is,” she says. “There’s no way I’d go in shorts … if you’ve been out in the woods, run your clothes through the dryer. Ticks can survive a trip through the washing machine, but the heat of the dryer will kill them.” 

If you’re an outdoor worker, specialized clothing with embedded tick repellant is also an option. 

“Bug spray is next on the list,” says Dr. Vett Lloyd. “Some work well on mosquitos but ticks are harder to deter. Read the label, make sure you’re getting one that will repel ticks, and apply as directed. There are some good natural products too, just check the info carefully to make sure they’re proven to repel ticks.” 

You want ingredients like sage, mint, or garlic, and certification that the product is safe and effective. Apply your spray throughout the day. If you can smell it, it’s evaporating, and you need more. 

ON THE LOOKOUT 

If you suspect an infected tick has bitten you, consult a health-care provider immediately. In Nova Scotia, if you spot a tick bite quickly, a pharmacist can give you a single antibiotic dose to stave off Lyme. The disease moves fast and hangs on stubbornly, so err on the side of caution. 

ON THE HUNT 

If you’re especially serious about making your yard a tick-less haven, consider adding fowl to your family. “I tried guinea hens,” says Dr. Vett Lloyd. “Guinea hens and other ground-foraging birds, like chickens, are very good at finding ticks and eating them. If you fence it in and can keep them confined to your yard, they’ll knock back the tick population considerably within a year or two.” 

FOR FUTURE REFERENCE 

 


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