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Weather brings early return of pesky parasite

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The early start of spring this year might be welcome, but along with it comes a less welcome annual visitor: ticks.

Several sightings have already been reported of deer ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease, and the more common dog tick, or wood tick.

"It seems like they're now emerging and looking for a host," said Gary Bullemer, assistant manager at Sibley State Park.

"It's not winter anymore," agreed Dr. Bobbi Kopel, a veterinarian at Willmar Pet Hospital.

Kopel said she and her staff have already seen some doggy patients with ticks this spring.

"We've done some testing for Lyme disease," she said.

"We do see quite a bit of Lyme disease and some other tick-related disease in the area."

Dog ticks are most likely to be found in grassy or brushy areas. Deer ticks, also known as black legged ticks, usually prefer the fringes between open land and wooded areas.

Ticks are more than just a nuisance. Both deer ticks and dog ticks can carry a variety of disease organisms that are transmitted through bites and sometimes result in serious illness.

Lyme disease, which is spread by deer ticks, is among the most common and can affect dogs and cats as well as humans. But ticks carry other types of disease too.

In 2008 and 2009, Minnesota saw its first two recorded cases of Powassan encephalitis, which comes from deer ticks and can cause severe neurological illness. Last year a child from Dakota County also died from a rare case of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, most commonly spread by dog, or wood, ticks. The number of tick-borne diseases in Minnesota rose to record levels in 2008.

Deer ticks at one time were most likely to be found in eastern and southeastern Minnesota but they've been steadily marching westward, Bullemer said. He spotted the first deer ticks of the current season in late March.

"They're kind of a new arrival but they're here now," he said. "It's a good idea for people to be aware there are deer ticks in our area."

The best prevention: wear long pants and light-colored clothing if you spend time outdoors in grassy or wooded areas, and use a tick repellent containing DEET or permethrin. Tucking your pants into socks or boots also can help.

After returning from the outdoors, check your entire body carefully for any ticks and use a tweezers to promptly remove any you find.

Keeping your yard mowed, especially if you live in the country, also helps keep ticks away.

"You just have to be more vigilant," Bullemer said. "I'm not going to let it make me stay indoors or stop me from doing what I enjoy doing."

If you have a dog, it's not too soon to talk to your veterinarian about preventive measures.

"Now is the time, in spring, to get your pet in and get it tested," Kopel said.

Studies have found dogs are substantially more likely than humans to be infected with Lyme disease, making it important for owners to consider the Lyme vaccine that's available for dogs -- and to be diligent about tick control and prevention.

"The best thing is to check your pet when it comes in from outdoors," Kopel said.

Topical tick prevention products that are applied directly to the animal's skin are safe, effective and long-lasting, she said. Because deer ticks go through an additional hatch in fall, Kopel recommends tick prevention measures into November.

The same goes for cats, who can come down with Lyme disease too.

Although tick prevention products are available over the counter, it's a good idea for owners to consult a veterinarian to ensure they're using the product properly, Kopel said. "It sounds simple but sometimes it's the little things they miss."

Anne Polta

Anne Polta covers health care, business/economic development and general assignment. Her HealthBeat blog can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @AnnePolta.

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