Out of Bounds

Boring Days for Dogs

The places near here where I run my dogs are so infested with ticks we just have to give up outdoor life once the weather warms

By Rob Breeding

If members of my wolf pack were able to speak they’d be doing a lot of complaining these days. Spring weather has finally arrived in earnest, but because of my bum leg, we’re not getting out to enjoy it.

This comes with a caveat. On this part of the Great Plains spring is a dangerous time to be outside. The weather may be nice, but the arachnids are not. 

The places near here where I run my dogs are so infested with ticks we just have to give up outdoor life once the weather warms. It’s a great place for a walk in the winter, and we’ve never encountered ticks during hunting season, but this time of year it isn’t safe.

At the turn of the century, in Hamilton at what was to become the Rocky Mountain Laboratories of the National Institutes of Health, Howard Ricketts first discovered that Rocky Mountain spotted fever was spread by ticks. The so-called black measles was a scourge in the Bitterroot in the early part of the 20th century. Seventeen people died from the disease in 1901 alone, which would be a lot even in today’s more densely populated Bitterroot.

The Bitterroot’s early tick battles were waged in makeshift facilities on the Valley’s west side. Eventually, a permanent facility was built in Hamilton in the 1920s. To alleviate the fears of townsfolk, the new lab was surrounded by a small moat to prevent ticks from escaping. Black measles infections had only occurred west of the river, in the forested Bitterroot Mountains, which led to the lore that the disease was spread by drinking fresh snowmelt in the spring.

The disease is now treated with antibiotics, which are effective, especially when administered early after the infection. Left untreated, however, spotted fever can be fatal.

Out on the plains, I’m more concerned with Lyme disease. May is Lyme disease awareness month and May is a good time to ramp up your tick awareness.

Tick prevention starts with staying away from the grassy, wooded areas ticks prefer. Keep your dogs out of that stuff, too. The first spring after I arrived, I took Doll for a long walk near the river. When I inspected her later, more than a dozen ticks had embedded their barbed mouthparts in her skin. She takes chewable meds that kill ticks, but only after those buggers receive a blood meal. 

I pluck ticks off as soon as I find them, with tweezers, as close to the skin as possible.

As tempting as it is to break out shorts in the spring to get some color on your gams, long pants and sleeves, especially cuffed, are a good idea. You should also use a Food and Drug Administration-approved insect repellent.

When you get home, dump your clothes in the dryer and run them on high heat for 10 minutes to kill any ticks. Give yourself a good look over, too. Ticks especially like places where folded skin protects them, so check closely your armpits, the back of your knees, your groin and along your hairline.

I’ve removed my share of ticks, including a few embedded in my skin. I plucked them soon enough that I wasn’t in danger of Lyme disease infection, but that doesn’t do a thing to reduce the ick factor.

There’s some debate about how long it takes a tick to begin transmitting the bacteria that causes Lyme disease. Estimates range from 24-36 hours, but who wants one of those bloodsuckers on your body, even for a second?

There also aren’t any vaccines for Lyme disease, but researchers are working on options. A previous vaccine had some efficacy, but it wasn’t 100%. Early application of antibiotics is now the preferred treatment. 

A red rash around the bite, sometimes forming a bullseye, is the most visible sign you’ve been infected with Lyme disease. Early treatment is essential.

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