At Pet Pantry recently, groomers worked on a dog that came in with more than 70 feasting ticks hidden deep in its long fur.
It may be a harbinger of the season to come.
“Are we going to see perhaps a lot of ticks this year? I think the answer to that is probably yes,” said Professor Rich Zack, who teaches entomology at Washington State University in Pullman. “It’s been kind of a mild, wet spring; ticks like mild, wet spring.”
While the ticks found in Central and Eastern Washington aren’t likely to cause Lyme disease, health officials still urge caution to avoid other illnesses and complications associated with bites.
Ticks like to hang out in long grass and on the ends of low-hanging branches, where they can casually drop onto animals and people passing through the brush.
In Washington, the Western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus) is the one known to spread Lyme disease, but it sticks to the west side of the state.
East of the Cascades, ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but it’s rare. Species here include the Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni) and the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus singuineus), which is found statewide.
It’s been kind of a mild, wet spring; ticks like mild, wet spring.
Professor Rich Zack, Washington State University in Pullman
“The only downside to the ticks we have here would be, sometimes they can build up into very large numbers,” Zack said.
So, between the two sides of the state: “Do I get a few little ticks I can’t see that cause Lyme disease, which I do not want, or do I pick ticks off me for the rest of the day?”
The ticks here tend to be larger, which may not sound like a plus, but Zack said that the advantage is being able to feel and see them more easily, and fling them off before they cause problems.
“Very few people get to the point where those ticks are actually drawing blood from them, so that’s a good thing,” he said.
In Washington, the Western blacklegged tick is the one known to spread Lyme disease, but it sticks to the west side of the state.
Medical epidemiologist Marcia Goldoft with the state Department of Health said Central Washington residents should also be wary of soft ticks (Ornithodoros hermsi), which are more squishable but also tenacious.
Soft ticks live mostly in rodents, and therefore anywhere that rodents go: wood piles, spaces between walls, neglected corners of summer cabins. They’re only active at night, when they’re less likely to get squashed.
“These ticks can go for months without a meal — without blood,” Goldoft said. “Someone comes to clean up (their summer cabin), goes to bed; the tick comes out of the wall or the wood and can bite.”
Soft ticks can spread relapsing fever, which is treated with antibiotics and doesn’t pose much risk to healthy adults, but has been associated with miscarriages in pregnant women who become infected.
Be wary of soft ticks, which can spread relapsing fever.
Another tick-related disease to watch out for is tick paralysis, which can be reversed if the tick is removed soon enough, but is even rarer in Washington than Lyme.
Serious Lyme concerns
Washington logs zero to three cases of Lyme disease each year, Goldoft said, and most of those are in people who caught the disease out of state.
But for those who do contract Lyme, the impact can be devastating.
Karine Waggoner was severely ill for about five years before doctors finally diagnosed Lyme disease a year ago. By then, the disease caused problems with her heart and adrenal glands, along with a lot of pain, said her husband, Corey.
Lyme disease symptoms are frequently mistaken for other illnesses: fever, chills, fatigue, muscle and joint pain; in more advanced cases, dizziness, heart palpitations, nerve pain and facial palsy. But the singular “bull’s-eye” rash that appears at the site of the tick bite is the real giveaway.
Another tick-related disease is tick paralysis, but is rarer in Washington than Lyme disease.
“It was very visible, but we never really thought anything of it,” Corey said of the rash. “We thought it was kind of like a spider bite — you move on, and you’ll be OK.”
Karine is being treated at an alternative medicine clinic in Idaho, where she’s seeing improvement.
Despite their experience, Corey said, “You can’t stop living; you can’t stop going camping; you can’t stop outdoor activities and doing the things that you love.”
But they’re practicing caution, and teaching their kids to be careful too.
“If you’re in wooded areas or grassy areas, just be very mindful of if you do get a tick bite,” he said. “Go and get tested right away.”
Community health director Sheryl DiPietro at the Yakima Health District said part of the problem in missing diagnoses is that people don’t always think to tell doctors about recent hikes as part of their medical history.
“Your avid hikers think about that, but people who don’t do it very often don’t think about ticks,” she said.
Positive lab tests are reported to the health district, which then interviews the patient and reports back to the state.
In Yakima County, “We get them just every once in a great while,” DiPietro said.
The state Health Department solicits tick submissions from people who have been bitten, which it tests in big batches every year at the University of Massachusetts to track whether diseases are cropping up in new areas.
Washington logs zero to three cases of Lyme disease each year, and most of those are in people who caught the disease out of state.
Last year, the department received 1,500 ticks from veterinarians and 360 from the public; so far, only about 50 have been sent in this year. It also does some field collection of its own.
Of the ticks tested for pathogens, only about 2 percent are positive for Lyme, said Wayne Clifford, state manager of pesticide illness and zoonotic disease surveillance and prevention.
To prevent tick bites entirely, you have to steer clear of brush and tall grasses.
If you’re hiking or camping, health officials advise wearing light-colored long sleeves and pants, with pants tucked into boots, and tying back or covering long hair. Use bug spray that includes Deet, and have a friend or spouse do a thorough inspection after getting home to make sure no ticks tagged along.
Hiker Phil Bird, a local member of the Cascadians, recommends Permethrin spray. He sprays his clothes with it and lets it dry completely before putting them on, and says it repels ticks through five to six washings. He also sprays the zipper and edges of his tent.
Pets are also highly susceptible to ticks, especially dogs and horses. Dogs can get Lyme disease too.
But body checks are still crucial.
“It’s really hit and miss, to be honest,” he said. “There may be a group of us that go out, and one or two get ticks, and the rest of us don’t.”
Pets are also highly susceptible to ticks, especially dogs and horses.
Emma Scott at Pet Pantry said dog owners should look first around the dog’s head and neck, where ticks congregate because of the high blood flow.
It took several hours to remove the more than 70 ticks on the dog recently, most of which were around the head.
I feel like a lot of people know about ticks, but they don’t realize how easy it is for their dogs to get ticks.
Emma Scott at Pet Pantry in Yakima
The shop sells shampoos, flea and tick sprays, medications and anti-tick collars, including some all-natural options, but Scott says awareness among owners is still lacking.
“I feel like a lot of people know about ticks, but they don’t realize how easy it is for their dogs to get ticks,” she said. “All it takes is for a dog to run through a bush and it could instantly have three ticks.” Dogs can get Lyme disease too.
While Lyme and other tick-related diseases are a serious problem, epidemiologist Goldoft says people are at much higher risk for more mundane health issues.
“Wear sunscreen — you’re more likely to die of skin cancer,” she said. “And wear a seat belt when you’re driving out there.”
How to remove a tick
Here’s some advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on how to remove a tick:
Use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible.
Pull upward with steady, even pressure. Don't twist or jerk the tick; this can cause the mouth-parts to break off and remain in the skin. If this happens, remove the mouth-parts with tweezers. If you are unable to remove the mouth easily with clean tweezers, leave it alone and let the skin heal.
After removing the tick, thoroughly clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol, an iodine scrub, or soap and water.
Dispose of a live tick by submersing it in alcohol, placing it in a sealed bag/container, wrapping it tightly in tape, or flushing it down the toilet. Never crush a tick with your fingers.