Julie Lohre had her first encounter with a tick early this spring while walking her dog in Blatnick Park.
Lohre, who oversees Niskayuna town park operations, says her dog stayed out of tall grass and never strayed more than a few feet off the path. Nevertheless, she managed to bring home a creepy-crawly stowaway. “A couple of hours later, when we were home, a tick crawled out of her ear and kind of dropped onto my lap,” Lohre recalled.
A couple of weeks later, after walking the dog around her manicured neighborhood, she found another tick.
“The problem is very real, and it is here,” said Chuck Shmitt, senior resource educator at Cornell Cooperative Extension.
He said the Albany County Health Department tracks deer ticks through Lyme disease reports, and over the past decade, infections in upstate New York have increased.
Many people mistakenly expected the tick population to decrease after temperatures frequently dipped below zero in January and February this year, but Shmitt says ticks will be just as common as they were last spring.
“I think that’s one of those really nice misnomers. If we have to suffer through a bitter winter, we’d like that to be true,” he said, “but ticks overwinter in the leaf cover.”
He explained that even when the temperature is below freezing, dark, humid debris below the snow is insulated — just right for ticks to weather the cold season.
Shmitt said 10 to 12 years ago, ticks were a bigger concern downstate than in the Albany area, but no longer.
“The worst of it seems to have moved up the Hudson Valley toward our area,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s because of education or protection, but there seems to be less of an incidence near Long Island and Westchester County and more up in Albany County and Greene County.”
Shmitt said this change in frequency doesn’t necessarily mean tick populations are shifting. Rather, it means Lyme disease is becoming more prevalent. When ticks became a serious problem in the Long Island area, educational efforts ramped up. Shmitt suggested that the same preventative efforts could reduce Lyme disease cases in this area, as well.
One effective step homeowners can take is to groom their lawns. Although ticks do venture into well-kept grassy areas, Shmitt said it’s far less likely to encounter them there than in overgrown areas. He suggested keeping lawns mowed to about 3 inches.
But even a well-groomed lawn can have a tick population if it is visited often by wildlife or borders a wooded area.
“Deer are obviously carriers of the ticks that cause Lyme disease. So are chipmunks and squirrels,” said Shmitt. “If someone has a property that they keep cleaned up and they’re adjoining a wooded property, most ticks will be within 9 to 10 feet of the woods. They don’t travel much unless they’re brought in by an animal or a pet.”
He estimated 80 percent of ticks go no farther than 10 feet from darker, wooded areas. He recommended keeping playground equipment and gardens outside of that zone. Particularly cautious homeowners can contain ticks by installing a 3-foot strip of bark mulch between woods and property, creating a dry, hot barrier that ticks will avoid.
“I don’t know if people realize this, but birds also carry ticks,” Shmitt cautioned. “If we have bird feeders close to the house or the living space and the bird comes to the feeder, and then the tick falls off of the bird, then we’re inviting ticks into the yard.”
Squirrels, too, can drop ticks as they jump branches.
Finally, as Lohre learned, pets can also be carriers for ticks. Shmitt said it’s important to be wary of hitchhikers picked up in shady, damp areas, tall grass or leaf piles.
John Cook, a Niskayuna resident, has to carefully monitor his two shaggy dogs, Benny and Destiny, to keep them from carrying ticks into his home.
“Our lawns are trimmed; it’s typical suburbia,” said Cook. Still, he and his wife, a veterinarian, treat their dogs with tick repellent all year long.
The pair became vigilant after a pet contracted Lyme disease years ago. Although they treated the disease, “the dog was never really the same after that,” Cook said.
Their precautions now extend to their 15-year-old son, Tim, who often camps with his Boy Scout troop. Cook said his son is careful to take common preventative measures, such as wearing long socks and checking his hair after spending time in the woods.
In addition to Cook’s smart preventive actions, Shmitt recommends wearing light-colored clothes to make ticks easier to spot, tucking pants into socks and spraying a repellent with DEET at least to the waist when trekking through taller grass. He also suggested containing dirty clothing in the laundry room after an outdoor adventure, followed by a thorough check of the entire body, not just the hair.
“I would say always be cautious with ticks,” said Shmitt. “Don’t be paranoid, but be cautious.”