About 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease every year, according to new estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lyme disease is caused by bacteria that multiply in the bodies of ticks, people and animals, including mice, deer and dogs. A whopping 95 percent of human Lyme disease cases are concentrated in only 14 states situated throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic and Upper Midwest (see slideshow), but infections have been reported across the country and into Canada. Scientists predict that Lyme disease will continue to spread as climate change causes an increase in the humid summer conditions and mild fall weather favored by the tiny blacklegged deer tick, which is the most common transmitter of Lyme disease.
These deer ticks pick up Lyme bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) when they feed on the blood of infected mice, chipmunks and other hosts. Infected ticks in both the nymphal and adult life stages can then transfer the Lyme bacteria to humans if they latch on for a meal and feed for approximately 36 hours or more. Lyme disease is highly treatable when it’s detected early, but devastating when the infection goes unnoticed for more than a few months. An early-generation Lyme disease vaccine is available for dogs, but people must rely on other defensive measures to avoid ticks and the diseases they often carry. If you’re interested in getting a Lyme disease vaccine for your dog, discuss options with your veterinarian and read up on it at Lyme Info.
Let Poultry Help with Tick Prevention
Leafy wooded areas and grassy meadows are the preferred habitats for blacklegged deer ticks and American dog ticks, which both spend their larval stage in leaf litter, their nymphal stage on small animals, and their adult stage in tall grass or other shrubby vegetation. People have learned how to get rid of ticks by keeping foraging chickens and guinea fowl on their property. In April 2015, we launched the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Chickens and Ticks Survey, and responses revealed that:
• 71 percent had an existing tick problem before they got poultry.
• 78 percent kept poultry that helped control or eliminate ticks within the birds’ feeding range.
• 46 percent experienced a drop in tick populations within a month after getting poultry; 45 percent saw good control after several months to a year.
Many respondents noted that small bantam chickens and game hens can get into tight spots where larger birds can’t fit, resulting in better tick control.
For maximum effectiveness, poultry should be allowed to feed in leaf litter starting in early spring, because that’s where ticks and their eggs hide out during winter. Poultry will eagerly work their way through leaf piles and ground debris when given the opportunity. Poultry also help control other pests, including mosquitoes, grasshoppers and even snakes; see Poultry Pest Patrol for more on these winged pest warriors.
Permethrin-Treated Clothes and ‘Tick Tubes’
If you live in one of the 13 states where Lyme disease risk is highest, learning how to get rid of ticks should be a top priority. You might want to consider using permethrin, a non-organic pesticide that repels and kills ticks. Permethrin is more potent and persistent than the organic materials we usually recommend. We suggest using a formula designed to be applied to clothing rather than misters, sprayers, foggers or other permethrin products. Clothing products that are pre-treated with permethrin are available, or you can buy permethrin with instructions for how to use it to treat your clothes. Take care to not expose kids to this pesticide, as studies have linked permethrin exposure to autism in children. The EPA also classified permethrin as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” so weigh the risk of infrequent exposure to the risk of Lyme disease in your area.
You might also consider permethrin-infused “tick tubes,” which are designed to kill ticks on white-footed mice as well as chipmunks and rats, the main animals from which ticks become infected with Lyme. The tick tubes offer nesting materials impregnated with the pesticide to such critters. The animals then take the material back to their nests, where it kills any ticks that may have latched on to the adults and their young. The small amount of permethrin used in tick tubes is not water-soluble, so it’s not likely to end up anywhere but in a nest.
Sold commercially as Damminix Tick Tubes, these devices are easy to make yourself. Wear rubber gloves and saturate cotton balls, strips of cloth, dryer lint or other rodent nesting materials with a permethrin product made to go on clothing and tents. Then, loosely pack the treated material into pieces of plastic pipe that are about the size of a toilet paper roll, and place them behind logs, in brush piles, or in other locations rodents often visit. In suburban and urban landscapes, dense ground cover has been found to attract mice, so it’s a good place to put tick tubes. After mice and other rodents empty the tubes, replace or reload the pipes. This is best done twice a year — once in spring and again in fall.
Herbal Tick Repellents
Many of our survey respondents reported that they apply veterinary-prescribed tick preventatives on their dogs and cats, but would prefer more organic repellents. Two plant-based aromatics — sweet-scented “rose” geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) essential oil and eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana; also known as “red cedarwood”) essential oil — were repeatedly recommended by readers who use them as spray-on repellents for pets and family members alike. Respondents theorized that these two plant aromatics mask your natural odors, which makes it harder for questing ticks to find you. Both geranium essential oil and eastern red cedar essential oil have proven to be successful repellents against ticks in various life stages, according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and the Journal of Medical Entomology, respectively.
Using full-strength essential oil can injure human skin and overwhelm pets’ sensitive noses, so follow this simple recipe when making a liquid anti-tick spray: In an 8-ounce spray bottle, combine 10 to 20 drops of rose geranium or eastern red cedar essential oil with 1 teaspoon of vodka or rubbing alcohol. Fill the rest of the bottle with water and shake to combine. The spray can be applied to your skin or clothing. You can spray your dogs’ collars, or spritz the same spots where you would apply other tick preventatives — between the animal’s shoulder blades and at the base of the tail. Before taking your dogs into woods, where they’re likely to pick up ticks, you can lightly spray their legs, too.
You can also add dry herbs to your tick-fighting arsenal for pets. Strew dried and pulverized wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) or pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) leaves on pet beds and outdoor sleeping spots to repel mites and ticks. If you have beautyberry bushes (Callicarpa americana), you can use the leaves (or a strong tea made from them) to repel ticks, fleas and mosquitoes. USDA scientists in Maryland have validated this historic use of beautyberry, according to findings published in Experimental and Applied Acarology. Two beautyberry compounds, callicarpenal and intermedeol, have even been found to repel fire ants. Research continues into beautyberry’s safety and best uses, so for now we suggest the pillowcase approach — add dried leaves to a cloth pouch placed in your pets’ beds, or lightly spray your pets’ beds with beautyberry tea.
More Tick Prevention Tricks
Fencing out deer, the primary host of adult Lyme-infected ticks, can help prevent ticks from reaching your land. Low-cost, plastic-mesh deer fencing is available online and at farm stores.
Ticks rarely inhabit lawns that are mowed regularly. Raking up leaves and composting them deprives overwintering ticks of shelter.
When hiking where tick populations are high, stay on the trails and dress defensively — pull your socks up over your pants. When only shorts will do, some people cut off the ankle sections of old socks, spray them with a repellent, and wear the tubes around their calves like tick-deterring leg warmers.
A study published in Experimental and Applied Acarology found that spraying outdoor areas with Safer-brand organic insecticidal soap in spring, when blacklegged deer tick nymphs are active, can provide treatment that is equally as effective as spraying with the insecticide chlorpyrifos.
After you’ve been outdoors, check your dogs for any ticks that may have latched on, and then make your way to a hot, soapy shower followed by a careful body check. You can kill any ticks that have attached to your clothing by immediately putting your clothes into the dryer for 15 minutes on the hottest setting, and then washing them. Most ticks are sensitive to dry heat, but may survive even the hottest wash.
Studies have shown that it usually takes an infected tick about 36 to 48 hours after biting its host to begin transmitting Lyme disease, which is why spotting and removing ticks as soon as possible is important. Ticks in the nymph stage — when they are about the size of poppy seeds — are active in late spring and early summer, and are the hardest to find on your body. These ticks pose the largest Lyme threat to humans and pets (see illustration in slideshow).
We thank Dr. Keith Clay, tick expert and distinguished professor of biology at Indiana University, for his review of this article.