By Marcia Anderson
A lovely spring walk in the park with my dog allows me to enjoy trees and shrubs as they awake from their winter naps. Suddenly, I spot a tick climbing up my pant leg and am reminded that it is the time that ticks and other insect pests also emerge. It doesn’t matter if you live in the city, country or suburbs, ticks can easily end up in your neighborhood, transported on small mammals, hungry to feast on you and your dog.
Tick-borne diseases are on the rise in the U.S. According to the Center for Disease Control, Lyme disease is found in 46 states and Rocky Mountain spotted fever has been reported in 40 states. The northeastern states, from Maine through Maryland, have the greatest concentration of ticks in the nation, from mid-May through the fall. This makes tick management an important consideration for schools, parks and neighborhoods.
Young ticks attach to field mice, rabbits, birds and squirrels. As they mature, older nymphs and adults climb onto tall grasses, shrubs and herbaceous plants, in a quest to grab onto larger hosts like deer, dogs and people as they pass by.
The brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus), once inside your home, can live and breed in cracks and crevices. The American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), on the other hand, can be found indoors after being carried in by a host, such as a dog. As a dog lies on the floor, a tick can easily drop off and crawl into the tiny space moldings provide next to the wall. Undisturbed, ticks will stay on a dog or human for several days, giving it plenty of time to transmit disease.
Immature ticks are very tiny and, like older ticks, often go unnoticed until they become engorged with blood. After feeding, the female will drop from its host, hide and lay up to 3,000 eggs. Our golden retriever, Mozart, frequently lay in his favorite spots during his golden years. Late one fall, we noticed hundreds of tiny ticks crawling around one of those favorite spots. It took weeks for us to vacuum up all of those ticks.
There are 12 species of tick that are of major health concern throughout the U.S. In the Northeast, the main culprits are the American dog tick and deer tick. The American dog tick is much larger than the deer tick and the female has a whitish shield on her back, and carries diseases such as Rocky Mountain spotted fever and encephalitis. The black-legged tick, commonly known as the deer tick, is about the size of a poppy seed, and without markings. It carries the organism that causes Lyme disease.
Ticks are of particular concern on many school properties with large open playing fields surrounded by either woods or open areas with tall grass or brush. Ticks are also found on cross-country trails, paths and play yards located near wooded areas. One Massachusetts study determined that children, ages 5 to 9, have the highest incidence of reported Lyme disease of all age groups. This emphasizes the need for tick education for all school-aged children.
Integrated Pest Management (IPM) is a smart, sensible and sustainable approach to managing pests of all types, including ticks. IPM for ticks relies on planning, prevention, monitoring and landscape maintenance/modification to reduce tick-favorable habitats. It also includes the judicious use of pesticides. Here are some tick IPM suggestions you can implement around your home and school.
First, educate all children and parents about personal protection from ticks in regions where ticks are common. Children should be instructed not to go into areas where ticks are known to be prevalent, such as meadows and other areas with tall grasses unless proper precautions are followed. These precautions include keeping to the center of trails, avoiding contact with shrubs and tall grasses and using personal protection.
Personal protection includes wearing light colored clothing, tucking pants legs into socks, and wearing closed-toe shoes. After a long day enjoying nature in the outdoors, place clothing directly into the washer and especially the dryer. Washing clothes may not kill all hiding ticks, but they will succumb to the heat of the drier.
Education also includes lessons on how to recognize ticks and conduct body checks for ticks. On humans, ticks migrate up toward the hairline. It takes about five hours for a tick to become firmly implanted and a few days for it to become fully engorged with blood. If you find a tick, carefully remove it with tweezers, keep it in a container or zip-top bag for later identification. You may want to seek medical attention following a tick bite, especially if you are in an area where tick-borne diseases are prevalent.
Parents should read and follow the label of any tick repellent they choose. Note that some repellents are not recommended for use on the skin of young children. EPA has an online tool to help you choose the right repellent. Permethrin-treated clothing that repels and kills ticks is another option.
Protect your pets by talk to your veterinarian about the various products available to repel and kill ticks.
Landscape modifications to reduce tick habitats include keeping grass mowed, creating a three-foot wide area between woods and playing fields, raking leaf litter, eliminating brush-covered habitats, and excluding hosts, like deer by installing exclusion fences. Mulch or wood chips under play equipment and gravel or mulch as edging along woodlands make unfavorable tick habitat.
For more information, review EPA’s Tick Safety in Schools publication, the University of Maine’s tick fact sheet, and view EPA’s School IPM webinar on ticks. You can also visit the University of Rhode Island’s Tick Encounter Resource Center and become a tick spotter. The information you submit can improve tick awareness through tools like Tick Encounter’s Current Tick Activity tracker.
About the Author: Marcia is with EPA’s Center of Expertise for School IPM in Dallas, Texas. She holds a PhD in Environmental Management from Montclair State University along with degrees in Biology, Environmental Design, Landscape Architecture, and Instruction and Curriculum. Marcia was formerly with the EPA Region 2 Pesticides Program and has been a professor of Earth and Environmental Studies, Geology, and Oceanography at several universities.