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Should longhorn ticks concern us? Not exactly

  • 4 min to read

MARTINSVILLE-The longhorned tick has arrived in Virginia, but according to Dr. Kal Ivanov, in spite of sensational headlines, there is no cause for panic.

Ivanov, who is the Assistant Curator of Invertebrate Zoology at the Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville, said that the longhorned tick is a bit different from our native species, but it isn’t quite the terror that many have made it out to be.

“If you read the papers, the newspaper headings are really overdone and sensational,” Ivanov said. “They’re overdoing it a little bit, in my opinion, but we should certainly be aware of (this tick).”

A small, reddish tick about the size of a deer tick, the longhorned tick is an invasive species originally hailing from Eastern Asia, including China, Japan, Korea and eastern Russia. They have also spread throughout many islands in the Pacific, Ivanov said.

While they have been intercepted in the U.S. on quarantined animals in the past, Ivanov said, the longhorned ticks didn’t make headlines until recently.

On Aug. 1, 2017, a New Jersey woman was shearing her pet sheep when she reported a “swarm” of ticks crawling off the animal and onto her arm. In November 2017, these were determined to be invasive longhorned ticks.

“I think they found close to 1,000 specimens on the poor animal,” Ivanov said. “The animal was treated with a solution of permethrin and a few days later, it was found to be free of the ticks. The pet made it; that’s the good news. The not so fortunate news is they didn’t eradicate them. Since then, it’s been reported so far in eight states, all of them in the eastern United States.”

This led to headlines announcing that a swarming, bloodsucking tick had recently arrived in the U.S. and was spreading like wildfire. However, according to Ivanov, the longhorned tick doesn’t necessarily swarm, and it probably isn’t a recent arrival.

“What it comes down to is, it didn’t spread that quickly,” he said. “The simplest explanation is that it was here already, we just happened to encounter a heavy infestation, and the right people looked at the specimens and identified it. Of course, once we were aware of the presence, everybody started looking for it and all of a sudden, it started popping up everywhere: West Virginia, Virginia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Maryland, Arkansas, New York.”

“The National Veterinary Service laboratory recently looked back through some samples and found a specimen from a dog from New Jersey from 2013,” Ivanov added. “It’s been here for a number of years. Ticks are not easy to identify to begin with, especially the immature stages. They’re all similar, they’re all tiny, and you have to have a good reference collection and the right people to look at it. Without those resources, in many cases, many things will go unnoticed.”

While longhorned ticks don’t “swarm” in the traditional sense, they are more likely than our native ticks to be found in large numbers. The reason, Ivanov said, is that they are “parthenogenetic,” meaning that while males and females can mate, a female doesn’t need a male to fertilize her eggs, meaning she can multiply without worrying about finding a partner.

“None of our native ticks are known to be parthenogenetic … it’s not the norm,” Ivanov said. “In this particular species, all of the invasive populations are parthenogenetic. It’s not surprising. Typically, when they make it to a new area, not too many of them make it. If you have a heavily infested animal, it will never make it past the quarantine. It will be noticed. But if you only have a few ticks, they may escape detection.”

Where are they and who should be concerned?

Right now, Ivanov said, longhorned ticks have been confirmed in Albemarle County and Warren County in Virginia, both of which are in Northern Virginia.

“But frankly, it’s not a matter of if they’re going to get here,” he said. “It’s a matter of when, if they’re not already here. … They have such a wide range of hosts. They’re not picky. The larvae, when they first hatch, will latch onto smaller mammals and birds, and these things can distribute them, especially birds. The nymphs and the adults prefer cattle, horses and sheep. But they’re also found on deer, and deer are everywhere.”

The biggest legitimate concern about the ticks, Ivanov said, is the effect they could potentially have on livestock. Longhorned ticks are known to carry theileria, a protozoan that causes a condition called theileriosis. The disease targets red blood cells and can cause anemia, and when combined with a large aggregation of ticks on an animal, there can be severe consequences.

Adult animals rarely die from the condition, Ivanov said, but a New Zealand study showed that the condition can reduce a cow’s milk production by as much as 25 percent. For a dairy, Ivanov said, longhorned ticks could potentially wreak havoc.

The average Joe

Those who don’t own a dairy or livestock, Ivanov said, shouldn’t be unduly concerned about longhorned ticks.

“There is no need for alarm,” he said. “We already have a number of native species of ticks that carry a number of diseases. You don’t need to change your lifestyle in order to account for the new tick. Do the exact same thing that you would have done for any of the native species. The idea is to be mindful.”

There are several good ways to avoid or repel ticks, Ivanov said. You can stick to paths and mowed lawns, for one – ticks need high humidity, and mowed lawns are less humid than un-mowed lawns. If you do have to go into the woods, there are a few options, which Ivanov said he learned about the hard way.

Prior to moving to Virginia, Ivanov said, he lived in northern Ohio, where ticks are nowhere to be found.

“I spend a lot of time in the field, as you can imagine,” he said. “It’s part of my job. I came here, went to the Eastern Shore, went to a preserve and jumped right into the woods. At the end of the day, I had 18 ticks, all of them attached. Something had to be done.”

Fortunately, he said, he discovered permethrin, a medication and insecticide that repels ticks like a charm. It isn’t applied to the skin; instead, you apply it to your clothes and shoes, and it doesn’t need to be re-applied until after four or five trips through the washing machine. Ticks avoid permethrin, and if they do latch onto clothing that has been treated with it, they drop right off.

Ivanov also recommended insect repellents that contain DEET – and of course, he said, if you’ve been out in the woods, check yourself for ticks afterward. While the longhorned tick can be a carrier for disease, our native ticks carry disease, too.

“The moment the tick attaches to your body, it doesn’t necessarily transmit the pathogen right away,” he said. “It takes at least a few hours. If you find a tick, use tweezers to remove it. The idea is catch the tick as close as possible to the skin and very, very gently pull it. Don’t twist it; you increase the chance of breaking off the mouthparts, which means a secondary infection.”

Matches, peroxide, gasoline and nail polish should never be used to remove a tick, Ivanov said. Tweezers are the only way to go.

If you think you’ve found a longhorned tick, Ivanov said, you can contact the Virginia Cooperative Extension to identify it. But whatever you do, there’s no need for panic.

“In many cases, it’s blown out of proportion,” Ivanov said. “Invasive species arrive day after day.”

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