This fall when I was pulling on a T-shirt one evening, I noticed a small dark spot on my belly. Upon closer examination, it was, as I suspected, a tick.
What was interesting was it was Thursday evening. I’d been bird hunting in the western U.P. on Monday and Tuesday, but the weather was miserable on Wednesday – raining and blowing like a bebop trumpet player – so I got up, showered and started for downstate, hoping for a break in the weather that never arrived.
The point is I’d been out of the woods for more than 48 hours when I found the tick.
It did not appear to be engorged, so I pulled it off with tweezers, but the head remained in my flesh. Try as I might, I couldn’t dig it out. So I went to a rapid care the next morning, a nurse shot me up with lidocaine and dug it out with a scalpel. And she wrote me a scrip for a prophylaxis dose of antibiotics because the tick had invaded my hide and might have been there a while.
When a tick bites, it injects liquid into the wound to keep the blood flowing it is ingesting. The bacteria lives deep in the arachnid’s gut, and it takes about 48 hours for the bacteria to migrate up to the critter’s mouth and infect the bite.
As I’m sure you know, ticks are capable of transmitting disease. Most prominently in this part of the country, we’re talking Lyme disease, carried by deer ticks (also known as blacklegged tick) and all three life stages of ticks – larva, nymph and adult – can carry the bacteria. Lyme disease is easily treated if recognized quickly, but left untreated, can be very bad news.
“It belongs to the same family of bacteria as syphilis,” explained Howard Russell, an entomologist at Michigan State University. “Left untreated, it’s like syphilis, a debilitating disease.”
Ticks are cold-tolerant critters (adults overwinter) and though less prominent in the winter, ticks can still be found in Michigan this late in the year. Historically in Michigan, they only were found in the Upper Peninsula.
“Twenty years ago, there weren’t ticks in southern Michigan,” Russell said. “We first noticed them about 20 years ago in southwest Michigan – deer ticks in Berrien County.”
Russell speculates that the absence of ticks in the Lower Peninsula is because it’s surrounded on three sides by the Great Lakes. He says the theory is the ticks arrived in southern Michigan from Indiana.
“Northern Indiana is known to harbor that species,” Russell said.
These days, ticks are widespread across southern Michigan. Russell, who lives in southern Ingham County, says he finds them regularly.
“We’ve found about 20 in the house,” he said. “We find them crawling along on our bed or on the floor. We blame it on the dogs, but it’s possible they climbed up on us and we brought them in the house.”
Ticks live in tall grass and brush and get on people or dogs that traverse said vegetation. There are zillions of them at Rose Lake State Wildlife Research Area, where I regularly take my dog, and when I comb him out, I find a lot of them on him.
Russell recommends applying an insect repellent when going afield – “Deep Woods Off is decent tick repellent,” he said – and though I didn’t ask him, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to apply something to the dog, too. Most systemic flea treatments also kill ticks, and any ticks I’ve found on my dog days after a field trip have been dead. My veterinarian has recommended a Lyme vaccine for the dog, but I’ve talked to several vets who own bird dogs who have told me they don’t vaccinate their canines.
If you find a tick on you, remove it with tweezers as close to the skin as possible, wash the area with soap and water, and watch for symptoms. The most obvious is a bull’s-eye shaped rash at the site of the bite. Flu like symptoms – headaches, body aches, nausea – should be investigated. A 200-mg dose of doxycycline given with 72 hours can prevent Lyme disease (which, I guess, is what the nurse at the rapid care ordered up for me).
But there’s no need for paranoia about ticks. Plenty of places have plenty of ticks, and people learn to live with them.
“In some places ticks are a way of life; no one gets excited by them,” Russell said. “But for us down here, it’s a fairly new phenomenon.
“A Minnesotan would pull it off and move on with their day. They wouldn’t give it a second thought.”