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Yes, You Should Be Thinking About Ticks In Wyoming

Photo demonstrating the stages of engorgement in a nymphal blacklegged tick over a period of 96 hours.

In the United States, most diseases are reported where they're diagnosed, not where they're acquired. This can make people think that there's a greater risk of catching a disease in places where it's actually quite rare to find it. For example, Lyme disease is a bacterial disease that's transmitted by ticks. The bacteria that causes it has been found in ticks in Colorado, but not in Wyoming. And even then, they're not likely to spread the disease to humans.

"Most of those ticks don't really bite people. They're more small, medium sized animal feeders, so things like rabbits and small rodents. So you would have to be very unlucky to get Lyme disease from a tick here," said Will Reeves, a medical and veterinary entomologist with the CP Gillette Museum in Colorado. But, according to Reeves, ticks are more likely to acquire and spread diseases than mosquitos are.

"A tick in its whole life could have months of exposure to an animal. If that animal gets infected with anything during that time, so does that tick," he said. "A mosquito when it bites you, well, one, it only feeds on blood in one life stage, and it has mere, like a minute, of exposure to you. So if you're not viremic, or parasitemic at that moment, there's no chance for it to get anything," Reeves said.

He added that ticks of all life stages feed on blood, but adult ticks are the most likely life stage to carry disease.

Experts say that when a tick finds a host, like a human, it takes a little while to find the perfect place for it to bite. But once it does, any diseases that tick is carrying could be transferred to the host. In most cases, that can happen within a few hours. Only a few diseases, like Lyme disease, take longer to transfer. So it's important to remove an attached tick as quickly as possible. But according to Reeves, there are a lot of incorrect ways to get rid of a tick that's already bitten you.

"If you imagine if a tick is feeding on you or on anything, so your pet or your livestock, you probably don't want that tick to then expel as much of its gut content, salivary gland, everything into you or the other host," said Reeves.

He said things like hitting a tick with a hot match, lighting it on fire, or painting it with fingernail polish greatly increase the chances of it doing that. What is recommended by the CDC is putting a pair of tweezers as close to the skin and the tick's mouthpart as possible and then gripping and pulling it straight out in a single, smooth motion. If you don't have tweezers handy, fingers should do the trick, but be sure to wash your hands after to reduce your chance of exposure.

Tick-Borne Diseases

If a tick has attached it can be difficult to tell how long it's been there, so after removing it you should monitor for any disease symptoms like fever, chills, or aching joints for the next couple of weeks.

"It might be something totally unrelated, but it's good to know," cautioned Reeves. "And then a lot of these diseases, it's a less than a month window for many of them. So it's not six months from now, you suddenly break out in Spotted Fever, it's several days to a couple weeks," he added.

There aren't very many common tick-borne diseases in Wyoming. Colorado tick fever and Rocky Mountain spotted fever are the most common and they're both transmitted by the Rocky Mountain wood tick. Tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, can be common in wildlife, and people can contract it from both ticks and animal carriers.

Avoiding Ticks

Of course, the best way to avoid catching a tick-borne disease is to avoid being bitten in the first place, if possible. According to Reeves, being aware of the environment you're going into is the first step. The risk for tick exposure is much lower on a manicured lawn or paved running trail than in tall grass. Wearing light colored clothing that ticks will stand out on can help you notice them before they attach too. Another option is to treat yourself or your clothing with a repellent labeled for ticks, like DEET or permethrin.

"If you're really worried about it because you're going to be in a place that has high tick density, doing things like, it might look a little goofy, but if you tuck your pant legs into your socks, they won't be able to get inside your pants, and then crawl up the inside of your pants," Reeves suggested.

He also added that after you've been in a tick prone area, to immediately wash your clothes.

"Ticks will not survive the wash - soap and water will kill them because it will just drown them," Reeves said.

Otherwise, any ticks that may be left in the clothing are likely to leave it and make a host out of the nearest CO2 source, which could be you or your pets.

Pets can also be protected from ticks by using a repellant labeled for their species. Cats, in particular, may react poorly to a repellant not labeled for them.

Benefits Of Snow

Many believe that ticks cannot thrive in much of Wyoming due to our cold, snowy winters. But oftentimes, the more snow the better for ticks. When snow falls, it creates an insulating layer over the ground, where it stays warmer than the air temperature and protects anything living under it.

"I actually talked to some of my collaborators in public health about this and some of them had said, 'We think that the cool, wet spring that we had on the Front Range probably helped increase the number of ticks in parts of the Front Range of the Rockies, just because it was cooler and wetter, and so less things dried up and died,'" Reeves said.

But, he added, long term changes to precipitation patterns and in temperature due to climate change could still have an effect on tick populations. This includes allowing other species of ticks to expand their range into Wyoming.

New Species

While there are only a few common species of ticks in the state, other species that aren't normally in the area can sometimes be temporarily relocated here. Reeves said it can happen when a couple of them hitch a ride with someone who's doing a cross country trip or students that move to the state for school.

"If you're a tourist location, it's easy to move them in and at least temporarily get them established," he cautioned.

Photo of an adult female American dog tick, Dermacentor variabilis, on a blade of grass.
The American dog tick is sometimes found in kennels in Wyoming. Occasionally, it will feed on humans.

Another species that's becoming more common in the area is the American dog tick. It can often be found in warm, humid kennels. As its name suggests, it's often found on dogs, but it will also feed on nearby humans.

When asked if there were any myths he wanted to debunk, Reeves added that ticks can't fly - something he's often asked about.

Ivy started as a science news intern in the summer of 2019 and has been hooked on broadcast ever since. Her internship was supported by the Wyoming EPSCoR Summer Science Journalism Internship program. In the spring of 2020, she virtually graduated from the University of Wyoming with a B.S. in biology with minors in journalism and business. When she’s not writing for WPR, she enjoys baking, reading, playing with her dog, and caring for her many plants.
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