Alarmed by a recent encounter with ticks and unable to synthesize what I was finding online about tick borne disease, I decide to exploit the expertise of Berry College’s Biology Professor and College Veterinarian Dr. Martin Goldberg, who just happens to be one of the planet’s foremost authorities on the biology of ticks. His answers offer important background together with some practical advice and useful perspective.
Hickman: Are we in “tick season” now? How long does it last? Is it the same time every year?
Goldberg: Yes, we are in tick season now but it is starting to taper off. Maybe a few more weeks. Generally tick season starts in the spring runs through the summer and into the fall. Ticks need heat and moisture to thrive. It also goes hand in hand with the availability of hosts that are needed for the various stages of the life cycle (egg, larva, nymph and adult). If there is a concentrated host population, then the life cycle is completed very rapidly. If not, it can linger. Mature females need to feed before they can lay eggs. Humans are the aberrant host and do not form part of the life cycle, but if an infected tick feeds on the human it can then transmit one of the infectious diseases that the tick is carrying.
Hickman: Is there a single tick species that poses the greatest threat as a disease vector?
Goldberg: In this part of the country the species of tick that poses the biggest threat is Ixodes and Rhipicephalus spp. Ixodes spreads Lymes Disease and Rhipicephalus spreads Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.
Hickman: Has suburbanization increased tick borne disease threats?
Goldberg: Suburbanization has not necessarily increased tick borne diseases, but has affected it. With more development there is less vegetation and fewer hosts, therefore there are less ticks. But in the surrounding areas where there is vegetation, the tick population seems to be more concentrated and a greater threat to animals and humans. A type of compensatory mechanism of ticks trying to survive.
Hickman: Should we be worried about Lyme disease now? And why is Borrelia burgdorferi called Lyme disease when Borrelia burgdorferiso is much more fun to say?
Goldberg: We should worry about Lyme disease all the time especially when bitten by a tick. Here in the Southeast ticks can survive the mild winters and it is not uncommon for animals to pick up ticks in the winter. Lyme disease is caused by a bacterial spirochete called Borrelia burgdorferi. It can also be called “Lyme Borreliosis” or just “Borreliosis”. The name Lyme comes for the river and Lyme area in Connecticut were the disease was first diagnosed.
Hickman: So we can blame this affliction on Yankees?
Goldberg offered no answer to this question.
Hickman: Does it make sense to immunize our dogs and cats for Lyme disease?
Goldberg: The only animal vaccine is for dogs. The vaccine is about 80% affective and requires regular boosters as the antibody levels often drop quickly after vaccination leaving the dog unprotected.
Hickman: Coyotes can be heard howling some nights in the rural south, for example here at Berry College. I have read that Coyotes can carry ticks with Rocky Mountain spotted fever. What is the danger from that source or from other tick borne diseases?
Goldberg: Coyotes can carry both Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Fortunately these are the only known tick borne diseases in this part of the country to be concerned about. In cattle, Anaplasmosis, another tick born disease, could be a problem in this area. Fortunately it is not a threat to humans.
Hickman: How bad is the tick borne disease threat here in the South compared with other places you have done research, such as South Africa?
Goldberg: South Africa is tick paradise and virtually every tick species known to man is found there. Not only is there an abundance of ticks, but also a multitude of very lethal tick borne diseases too numerous to mention. The tick population in cattle is so bad that they have to be dipped or sprayed weekly during the rainy summer months. Lyme disease is not found in South Africa but Rock Mountain Spotted Fever is.