Bloomington, Indiana – Deer are just a part of life in Bloomington, where they’re often seen grazing in lawns or strolling casually down a city street.
One curious Bloomingtonian wondered this: “Given the number of deer hanging around in my yard, I wonder about deer ticks and the frequency of Lyme disease in Bloomington”
A lot of folks in Bloomington complain about the prevalence of deer in the city, but they may not realize they could be helping to draw them in. That’s according to Joe Caudell, State Deer Research Biologist for the Indiana Department of Natural Resources.
“In some urban areas we actually have a larger deer population than what we have in what people would consider more natural habitat,” Caudell says.
He says much of what makes a lawn inviting to people also draws in animals.
“We like flowers, landscaping, those type of things, and deer like that as well so that will often attract deer to properties,” he says.
But it’s not just deer that carry the deer tick, which can carry Lyme disease.
Indiana University School of Public Health professor Karo Omodior says rabbits, birds and a lot of other creatures have them as well.
“Deer, chipmunks, squirrels, all of these other things, if they are very comfortable on a private property then chances are there might be ticks on those properties,” he says.
Omodior studies tick-borne disease risk in private residential areas. That means his team spends hours combing through lawns and gardens finding, cataloguing and testing ticks.
Looking for ticks in urban areas
He says the research is ongoing so he can’t give solid numbers yet. But he does say there are three common tick types in this area, and while they all carry pathogens, only the deer tick carries Lyme disease. And while those other pathogens can have serious health effects, Omodior says they aren’t as prevalent.
“The one that’s of most concern is Lyme, because often times most people who have the Lyme organism get treatment and then get better but others suffer post treatment Lyme disease syndrome that they might have to live with for a long time,” he says.
Those health issues can linger for years and be difficult to diagnose. According to the Center for Disease Control, the symptoms include, joint pain, fatigue and difficulty thinking.
But Omodior says contracting Lyme disease can be prevented with a bit of care. He says there are a few precautions you can take if you head out into the wild.
Taking protective measure to prevent a tick bite
“If you have wear long pants, tuck those pants into socks, and make sure that you wear clothing that is bright colored and light, and the simple logic behind bright colors is if there are ticks climbing on them it is easier for someone to spot and then pick off before they move around and settle somewhere,” he says.
He emphasizes using insect repellant and checking yourself occasionally while out in the woods.
And if you are worried about encountering ticks in your own property, Omodior says there are steps you can take there, too. The CDC recommends clearing woodpiles, leaf litter and any place cool and protected from the sun where ticks can thrive.
He says those steps are important because just one tick can reproduce anywhere from 1,500-6,000 eggs.
He also points out a simpler way to reduce the threat of a tick encounter.
“If you mow your property regularly — that means you keep the lawn clean — ticks are not likely to be on your property,” Omodior says.
He also recommends creating a gravel or similar barrier if your property butts up against a woodland area to protect against ticks and Lyme disease.
Omodior offers some good news: it take several hours for a tick on your body to actually latch onto your skin.
“They have to find a suitable spot and then they have to attach using a cement substance they secrete and then they can take a blood meal,” Omodior says.
What to do if you find a tick on your body
He says if you find a tick on your skin that hasn’t attached itself, you most likely don’t have to worry about any disease transmission.
But if you do find one embedded in your skin, gently remove it with tweezers and put it in a plastic bag and then go to see your doctor.
“The first thing is go to your primary care physician and they could give a prophylactic dose of doxycycline,” he says.
He also recommends getting the tick identified and tested for multiple disease pathogens, not just Lyme.
The CDC urges monitoring yourself after getting the initial treatment because Lyme disease is prone to false negatives especially early on.
And Omodior says it’s something we will likely have to think more about in the future, as the planet warms and humans intrude ever deeper into the ticks’ natural habitat.