The Tick Business Has Evolved

At the outset of our blog, in its infancy, its very first word was “tick.” That was close to a decade ago(!), and this parasite has actually changed somewhat in the intervening time. Ticks have always seemed to bask in their natural aura—silent, agile, creepy—but they are also sophisticated and smart. Perhaps you think of them as simple creatures, but they are continually workshopping novel ways to irritate and endanger us. Some of their routines, like Lyme disease, are well-worn performances. Every few years, though, they unveil a new technique to stay relevant and remind us of our vulnerabilities.

Tick species used to operate each in their own confined region of the country, but climate change has allowed them to comfortably expand into territory where the weather was previously inhospitable. Our increased access to transportation affords them the opportunity to travel by stowing away on humans, goods, or domestic animals. Wildlife is pressured to relocate due to human infringement on their habitat, and one deer might easily haul hundreds of ticks at a time. The Asian longhorned tick is a newcomer that has been present on this continent for only five or ten years; scientists are unsure how it navigated 5,000 miles (mostly over water), but we’re pretty sure it didn’t crawl the whole way.

Surveillance agencies are recording a wider variety of tick species in all regions, so doctors and veterinarians are confronting unfamiliar illnesses. Furthermore, brand-new parasite-borne diseases debut every couple of years, just to keep us all off balance. Bourbon virus, Heartland virus, and Powassan are some examples; all three are steadily becoming more widespread, and none of them are susceptible to antibiotics.

Did you know that tick bites themselves can inflict real damage, in the absence of a germ? Five different kinds of tick can completely paralyze your dog (or child) with a single bite. The Lone Star tick is a standout for innovation in the field of human torture, since its bite can supercharge your immune system to react against meat. This way you can be reminded of your one-time tick bite every time you try to eat. Reactions can be fatal.

Think you’ve heard it all? Allow me to introduce the all-time winner in reproduction excellence: that globetrotting nuisance, the Asian longhorn, has no need for a mate. That’s right, she can clone herself and lay thousands of eggs while the males are all relaxing on the other side of the planet. Also a winner in the category of enthusiasm, the longhorn is known to swarm in such numbers that they can drop a thousand-pound cow. And kill it. By sucking out all of its blood.

These loathsome little vampires have always gone the extra mile to annoy and infect us; this last decade, they’ve really outdone themselves. Today’s pets are lucky to have several very reliable single-use parasite preventatives, but maintaining your safety, as a human, is much more problematic. There’s no cure or vaccine for many of the tick-borne conditions, so you must apply repellent periodically and remain vigilant whenever you’re enjoying the outdoors.

Dr. M.S. Regan