The Truth About Ticks

Here’s a startling, and more so, horrific truth – Plymouth County leads the country in tick bites that result in the spread of disease; and not only one disease like the notorious Lyme disease, but other “co-infections” where a tick bite induces more than one illness in humans.

On November 4, Blake Dinius, entomologist and Plymouth County extension educator, spoke at the Mattapoisett Free Public Library to a full house on the theme of all things ticks. For a solid hour, Dinius gave a comprehensive presentation, enlightening the group on everything from the lifecycle of ticks to best practices in managing the spread of tick-borne diseases.

Starting with types of ticks found in the area – those being deer, lone star and dog ticks – Dinius said that only the deer tick spreads Lyme disease. He said that the name “deer tick” is a nickname for the blacklegged tick abundant throughout Massachusetts.

Many were surprised to learn that ticks were not insects but instead arachnids – you know, spiders with eight legs. Dinius said ticks sit “waiting” for hosts to pass by. It is then that the tick’s hooked leg parts attach themselves.

Ticks also respond to the emission of carbon dioxide from mammals, using senses other than sight and sound, which they do not possess, to find their prey. Once attached, the tick moves around the host until it finds a warm, moist location to begin feeding.

The audience was also surprised to learn that ticks only feed three times during their two-year life cycle. At the beginning of each stage of development – from larva to nymph to adult – the tick must feed. Dinius said that when the tick is passing through the first two stages of life, it will feed on small mammals such as the white-footed mouse, chipmunks, shrews, and even robins. The small animals infect the ticks with disease bacteria such as Lyme, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and relapsing fever. Then when they arrive on a human host during a feeding phase, the disease is transmitted. When the tick becomes an adult, it seeks larger prey like deer, dogs, and, unfortunately, humans.

Ticks survive in all climates, said Dinius, even in the harsh climates of the north and south poles feeding on polar bears and penguins. Here in New England, ticks easily winter over during their short, but ruthless, lifespans.

Ticks are most active between May and August, Dinius said, and due to their incredibly small proportions – the size of a poppy seed when they are nymphs – they can be very hard to locate on skin and clothing. Even an adult deer tick is no bigger than a sesame seed, he said.

Disease strategies tell the story of just how profoundly the northeast, and specifically Plymouth Country, has been affected by the spread of tick-borne illnesses. In 2014, based on a group of 100,000 people, the national rate of reported infection increased 7.9%. Massachusetts, though, reported a 54% increase over previous years. Plymouth County’s reported rate of infection increased a whopping 109%, much higher than the 2005 reported increase of 71%.

There are presently over 500 new cases of infection reported every year in this region.

While there currently is no government advised protocol issued to control what Dinius described as a “public health crisis,” there are things that we as individuals can do to protect our pets, as well as ourselves, from ticks. On these points, Dinius was very clear: “Protect yourself, your pets, and your yard.”

First, it is imperative to use products designed to kill or repel ticks from your body. Dinius said that applying DEET solutions directly on the skin is critical, followed by spraying clothing, including shoes, with products containing permethrin. Permethrin is not to be used directly on the skin, Dinius said, although it is not a carcinogen, dispelling concerns some in the audience expressed. Dinius stressed the importance of using all repelling agents by “following the directions.”

Dinius noted that ticks do not survive well in open, airy spaces such as lawns and sporting fields. However, they do thrive in warm, damp places like inside leaf litter, wood piles, and lushly vegetated grounds.

“Ticks can’t jump or fly,” Dinius chuckled while impressing upon the assembled the importance of wearing clothing that covered as much as one’s body as possible while outdoors– especially when planning a day of hiking in the woods. Since the ticks are lying in wait in low locations, keeping cuffs tucked into socks and wearing long pants is helpful, he said, along with light-colored clothing. “All the better to see any tiny dark dots.” He also said to check your body thoroughly from head to toe, including the use of a mirror to check those hard-to-see places.

Second, dogs should be treated with permethrin products developed for canines. Cats cannot have permethrin introduced into their bloodstream, but other products are available that are equally as effective, Dinius said. He urged everyone to consult with their veterinarian.

Third, he said for our yards that sprays were fairly ineffective and costly, suggesting that open spaces are preferable when planning one’s landscaping.

While the news Dinius shared was shocking, it was not without hope. Through educating people and medical professionals in the development of better diagnostics, he hopes that infection rates will begin to decrease as they recently have in Barnstable County.

Dinius said if you are bitten, you should collect the offending tick and have it tested to find out what diseases it may carry so you receive proper treatment(s).

“It takes twelve to twenty-four hours for the tick in infect you,” he said. “Seek treatment right away, even though Lyme is hard to diagnose.”

In conclusion, Dinius said, “Our main task is to educate people as means of protection.”

If you want information on ticks, you may contact Blake Dinius at or by calling 774-773-3404.

By Marilou Newell


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