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Crawling with ticks: Rising numbers of people and pets are contracting tick-related illnesses in Becker County

tick insect warning sign in forest

They're tiny, they're hungry, and they're here.

If you think the ticks seem bad this spring, your suspicions are correct. The Detroit Lakes area, along with the rest of Minnesota, is crawling with ticks this season, and doctors and veterinarians are reporting steadily increasing cases of tick-borne diseases in people and pets.

According to one recent report in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, the delayed spring, followed by warm temperatures, "has created a perfect storm for tick season." Another report, this one in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune, cites statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showing that Minnesota has the seventh-highest tally of tick-borne infections in the U.S., making it "an epicenter of tick-related illnesses."

Around Detroit Lakes, there have already been confirmed cases this spring of tick-borne illnesses in people. Sarah Winter, a physician's assistant at the local Essentia Health-St. Mary's clinic, said it's unusual to have confirmed cases this early in the season — a sign that the ticks are bad.

"At Essentia alone for the area clinics last year (area clinics include Detroit Lakes, Park Rapids, Mahnomen, Frazee, Lake Park, Pelican Rapids, Walker and Menahga)... there were 240 confirmed cases" of tick-borne illnesses, Winter said.

The Minnesota Department of Health has classified Becker County as a high risk area for tick-borne diseases. All the counties north, south and east of Becker are also high risk, including Otter Tail County, which until recent years was classified as moderate. To the west of Becker, Clay County was recently switched from low to moderate.

"All the numbers statewide have been increasing," said Winter. "There's been a very steady increase since 2014."

The three most commonly found tick-related diseases in Minnesota are Lyme, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. Winter said patients who visit the clinic with common symptoms of these diseases — fatigue, headaches, body aches, fever, swollen lymph nodes, a stiff neck and the telltale "bullseye" rash around the site of a tick bite — are tested for all three and then treated accordingly, usually with antibiotics.

Though symptoms sometimes go away on their own, tick-borne diseases left untreated can lead to more serious issues like neurological and joint problems, "so it's definitely something that...I recommend coming in for and getting checked out," said Winter.

The situation is similar for pets. Though there are some differences, dogs and cats are generally susceptible to the same tick-borne illnesses as people and show many of the same sorts of symptoms. And like us, treatment most commonly involves antibiotics.

Unlike people, dogs can receive a vaccine to prevent Lyme infection; the vaccine is not foolproof, however, and it does not protect against any other tick-related illnesses.

Local veterinarians say they're seeing a lot of ticks on their patients this spring, and pet owners are commenting on how bad the ticks seem to be. It doesn't matter whether pets live in town or out in the sticks.

"Across the board, everybody's been saying, 'There've been lots of ticks,'" said Samantha Zehr, a veterinarian at Detroit Lakes Animal Hospital. "I see Lyme and anaplasmosis in dogs in town. There's still grass, there are still bushes, and just because you live in town doesn't necessarily mean that your dog doesn't ever go out of town."

Zehr recommends pet owners protect their animals from ticks with preventatives (like Frontline topical liquids or chewables like NexGard), and also recommends the Lyme vaccine for most dogs. Preventatives are especially important during peak pest seasons, but will ideally be used all year long. Ticks are active any time the weather reaches 40 degrees Fahrenheit, and that can happen even during the coldest months of winter.

"I've seen a rise in Lyme and anaplasmosis, or at least it's been steady (over the past few years)," Zehr said. "And we see it any time of the year. At this point this year, we're seeing ticks but the spike in tick-borne illnesses is right around the corner — we're not seeing that yet."

Tick season peaks in July and picks up again in September, tapering off as temperatures dip below freezing.

SIDEBAR:

Ick, a tick!

Don't panic if you find a tick on yourself or your pet. Ticks only transmit diseases as they feed, and must be attached to the skin for a minimum of 24 hours to spread any kind of infection. Not all ticks are infected, and only infected ticks can spread disease.

According to the Minnesota Department of Health, tiny nymph deer ticks and adult female deer ticks, which are red and dark brown, are the types of ticks you need to worry about. Male deer ticks, deer tick larva, and wood ticks do not transmit Lyme or the other diseases of most concern in Minnesota.

To help prevent being infected, spray your clothes with the tick-repellent insecticide permethrin before going into woods or tall grasses. Wear lighter colored clothes to make it easier to spot ticks, and tuck your pant legs into your socks. When you go back indoors, look yourself over thoroughly — including behind your ears and knees, in your hair and in your belly button — and remove any ticks you find.

Likewise, check your pets for ticks after every trip outdoors. Talk with your veterinarian about how to best protect your pets against ticks.

If you do find a tick burrowed into your skin or the skin of your pet, use tweezers to grasp the tick close to its mouth and gently and slowly pull the tick straight out. Wash the area and apply an antiseptic, and watch for signs and symptoms of illness.

For more information about tick-borne diseases, visit the Minnesota Department of Health's website.

Marie Johnson

Marie Johnson joined the Detroit Lakes Tribune in November 2017 after several years of writing and editing at the Perham Focus. She lives in rural Frazee with her husband, Dan, their young son and daughter, and their yellow Lab.

(218) 844-1452
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