Nationwide, ticks and tick-borne diseases are on the rise, and the Key Peninsula is no exception. People who are often active in wooded areas are most at risk for tick bites. Free-range pets with access to wooded areas are at risk too.
When Key Peninsula resident Michelle Olsen’s spaniel, Cassie, began exhibiting flu-like symptoms and later became unconscious, Olsen rushed her to the emergency vet in Tacoma. “Cassie had anaplasma, and likely ehrlichia, from a suspected tick bite in her side. When it was said and done, I was $3,000 lighter. And Cassie came back from essentially the dead,” Olsen said.
Ticks are small, dark-colored parasites that feed on blood and can transmit diseases to people and pets. Some varieties live in grass and low shrubs and can latch onto the clothing or skin of a person who brushes past. Other varieties are associated with rodents and are only active at night.
Once aboard a host, ticks can crawl long distances across the skin to find a preferred feeding location, and then burrow in to feed. Bear, deer, raccoons, skunks and opossum often harbor ticks. Depending on the species, life stage and the host, the tick may continue to feed for just a few minutes or up to several days.
Tick-borne illnesses are significantly lower in Western Washington than in other parts of the country, especially those with hot, humid summers. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) places Washington in the bottom 20 percent of states reporting cases of tick-borne illness, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and others. The most recent data available cited 300 reported cases statewide between 2004 and 2016.
“Lyme disease is very rare in our state. According to the state Department of Health, each year there are seven to 23 cases in the state. In almost all those cases, people get the disease from traveling out of state, specifically to the Northeast and Midwest,” said Steve Metcalf, communications specialist for Tacoma Pierce County Health Department. “I don’t have specific data for Key Peninsula, but our county data are in line with what’s happening statewide.”
Nationally, the CDC reports the incidence of illness contracted from ticks more than doubled between 2004 and 2016.
Tick-bite prevention includes tucking pant legs into socks when venturing into the woods, avoiding brushing past long grass or shrubs if possible, showering after being in the woods, and checking for ticks between toes and other body crevices, as those are preferred feeding locations.
“The Department of Health has a resource page to show people how to safely remove ticks and, if necessary, send them in for testing,” Metcalf said.
After her close call with her spaniel Cassie, Olsen isn’t taken any more chances with ticks.
“We check for ticks on our dogs and ourselves at least three times a week during the summer,” she said. “I use rat-traps and have bait stations under my house for rodents. I removed all bird feeders from the yard to prevent bear and deer from finding the yard desirable.”
More information about ticks is available from the Tacoma Pierce County Health Department at www.tpchd.org.