Ticks are easy to miss—that is, until they bite.
With steadily increasing reports of illnesses from ticks biting people and pets in Ohio, ticks are concerning especially in the late spring and summer. During the warmest months, these tiny creatures are most active and most likely to pass on diseases.
A warmer winter triggered an earlier start this spring, so ticks will be active for more of this year, said Risa Pesapane, a tick researcher and assistant professor with the colleges of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences (CFAES) and Veterinary Medicine (CVM) at The Ohio State University.
“Likely every year will be a bit worse, at least for the next few foreseeable years as ticks continue to expand in Ohio and become established in new counties,” Pesapane said.
In some parts of the state, up to 60% of the blacklegged ticks are believed to be carrying Lyme disease, Pesapane said.
Although found in most counties in Ohio, blacklegged ticks, also called deer ticks, are most abundant on the eastern side of the state.
One of the newest ticks in Ohio is the Gulf Coast tick. The Gulf Coast may be a ways away from Ohio, but these ticks can travel on birds and have done so, heading north and into the Midwest. Last summer, the first established populations of Gulf Coast ticks were found in Hamilton and Butler counties.
Anyone bitten by this tick could experience spotted fever, which typically causes a fever, rash, and headache. A dog bitten by a Gulf Coast tick may not be affected. However, if a dog eats the tick, the dog can experience a fever along with weight loss, decreased appetite, and muscle pain, all symptoms of canine hepatozoonosis.
Typically, Gulf Coast ticks prefer grassy fields that may be periodically mowed or are transitioning into forest.
“We don’t yet know the extent of their distribution within Ohio. That’s an area of active research,” Pesapane said.
The Gulf Coast tick is the latest tick species to make a home in Ohio over the past two decades. The others are the blacklegged or deer tick, the lone star tick, and the Asian longhorned tick. Among all ticks in Ohio, the blacklegged tick poses the biggest threat, Pesapane said.
Once bitten by a tick carrying Lyme disease, a person might experience a fever, headache, fatigue, and often, a characteristic skin rash that looks like a bullseye. But about one third of people who get Lyme disease do not have the bullseye rash, Pesapane said.
Left untreated, the infection can spread to joints, the heart, and the nervous system.
Blacklegged ticks frequently hang out under piles of leaves, at the edges of wooded and brushy areas.
“There’s this ongoing misconception that people are exposed to ticks away from their homes only in rural or rugged areas. Actually, a lot of people are exposed to ticks in their own neighborhoods or local parks,” Pesapane said.
Dogs too are vulnerable. With dogs being furry and ticks being so small, the ticks can go unnoticed.
Last year, 12,260 dogs in Ohio tested positive for Lyme disease, which is significantly higher than the two previous years, Pesapane said.
One of her tick studies is on dogs brought to shelters in southern Ohio. Over a third of the shelter dogs she and her colleagues have screened in the past two years had been exposed to a tickborne disease, with the most common being Lyme disease.
“The increasing cases of dogs with Lyme disease mirrors the trend in human cases very closely,” Pesapane said.