In tick season, prevention remains the best defense
Waverly, N.Y. — It has never occurred to Brenda Valentine to quit hunting. Turkeys, deer, rabbits, it doesn’t matter. The national spokesperson for the National Wild Turkey Federation and 19-year member of Bass Pro Shops’ Pro Hunting Team is out there in all seasons. She just makes sure she’s prepared.
And with turkey season just around the corner, she urges you to be prepared, too. In addition to patterning the shotgun and getting your vacation days lined up at work, you have to get that camo treated and be ready to tuck those pant legs into your boots.
It’s not only turkey season, it’s tick season, too.
“I don’t go out there in bubble wrap, but I’m prepared,” says the First Lady of Hunting, who’s been struck twice by tick-borne diseases, the last round of which leaves her unable to eat mammal meat of any kind.
“It’s an allergy caused by the lonestar tick and there’s no cure for it,” she says of the alpha-gal allergy. “At first, we didn’t know what it was. When it started, my stomach was terribly upset. And the attacks just got worse and worse.”
One day, after eating a hamburger, she passed out, hit her head and lay unconscious on the floor until her husband found her. “There was no pulse, no heartbeat,” she recounts. “He thinks I’m dead and can’t call 911 because he’s trying to give me CPR. It was a really scary time for him. He said, ‘you’ve got to find out what it wrong.’”
Doctors continued to point to gall bladder problems, but with that finally ruled out they asked if she would consider seeing an allergist. “At that point I’d have seen a veterinarian if I though it would help,” says Valentine.
Turns out, the new Nashville doctor, once he became aware of Valentine’s hunting background, suggested she be tested for alpha-gal. The sense of relief for Valentine was overwhelming as she learned how to live with the disease.
Valentine’s is a rare case, to be sure, but ticks and the diseases they carry are not. While few alpha-gal cases have been seen in New York, Lyme disease – transmitted by the bite of the deer tick – is not. New York’s reported cases of Lyme average between 7,000-7,500 per year. “It’s nothing to shake a stick at,” says Bryon Backerson, the deputy director of the New York State Department of Communicable Disease. In fact, it’s the third most common disease in the state. “And those cases are definitely underreported; for every one of those cases there are certainly cases we don’t hear about.”
Of the 30 tick species in the Empire State, there are four the health department keeps an eye on – the deer tick, lonestar tick, American dog tick and the woodchuck tick. Of those, the deer tick is the most common and has the potential to transmit the most disease, says Backerson. And the most common of the diseases is Lyme.
Caused by a bacteria, Lyme can become debilitating if not treated quickly. Severe headaches, painful arthritis and heart and central nervous system problems are possibilities if you don’t get treatment soon after a bite, but early treatment, according to the health department, “almost always results in a full cure.”
You have to be vigilant, however.
Backerson suggests a thorough tick check after every trip outdoors, paying attention to warm and moist areas. That’s where ticks will go: behind the ear, in the back of the knee, in the waistband area. A hot shower for you will wash them off and a hot spin in the clothes dryer for your clothes will kill the leftovers. In the spring (May and June) you’re looking for the nymphal stage of the tick (about the size of a poppy seed), so they can be difficult to spot. By deer season (late September through November) the adult ticks will be out. About the size of a sesame seed, they are a bit easier to locate.
In the case of deer ticks and Lyme, you usually have about 36 hours to get them off before the bacteria is transmitted, Backerson says. For some of the other tick species, it’s less than that. In any case, prevention is likely your best bet.
And that’s what Valentine puts her stock in — keeping the ticks at bay in the field. Stocking up on Permethrin in industrial sizes, she saturates everything before hitting the woods.
“My vest, my boots, my decoys and especially all my clothes go into big garbage bags and I spray them to the point where they are almost wet. When I sit down next to a tree and I’m on the ground ready to call a turkey, I keep a small bottle (of Permethrin) in my turkey vest and spray all around,” she says. A camo groundcloth also helps keep them away (and is useful for wrapping the turkey on the way home to avoid ticks jumping from the bird). Tucking her pant legs into tall boots and donning a cap completes her setup.
Even with this hyper-vigilence, some of the tiny pests can get through. Backerson says fine-point tweezers are your best option for removal. While there are many gadgets on the market for tick removal, tweezers will work in every situation. A video on the department’s website outlines the process (http://www.health.ny.gov/diseases/communicable/lyme/tickfree/). After pulling the tick off, if you start feeling cold and flu symptoms within the next two weeks, see your doctor. Don’t depend on the tell-tale bull’s eye rash – it only appears in 60-80 percent of the cases.
As for this year’s “tick forecast,” Backerson says it will really depend on your location. Snow cover is really important for ticks. Since they are very susceptible to drying out, the cold dry air will impact them.
“If there was snow on the ground, it probably protected the ticks; if there wasn’t, there’s the possibility that the ticks could have been negatively impacted by this particular winter,” he said.
Regardless of this year’s tick forecast, it’s likely Brenda Valentine has already had her first shot at a turkey and has started stockpiling birds – one of the few game meats she can eat – in her freezer. So no, it never really occurred to her to quit.