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Researchers tracking tick 'crossing zone' in Virginia

'I think we've already caught more this year than we did all of last year'
Mild winter could make this year's tick season especially tough, experts say
Posted at 4:51 PM, Jun 10, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-10 16:51:49-04

VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. -- As if a summer of cicadas weren't enough, there's another insect experts are warning the public about -- ticks.

Holly Gaff, Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Biological Sciences at Old Dominion University, and her team have been researching the mites since 2009.

She said over the years, they have collected, sampled and studied nearly 260,000 ticks from 12 sites across Hampton Roads and the Eastern Shore. She said 90% of their collections have proved to be Lone Stars.

On Wednesday, WTKR caught up with the team as they were sampling ticks on the Eastern Shore.

"I think we've already caught more this year than we did all of last year," said Gaff, holding two small containers filled with live ticks.

Their monthly sampling up and down the coast shows a sign of things to come this summer.

"This is a technique called 'flagging,'" she said as her team waved white cloth flags throughout the grassy, wooded area. "Put a piece of cloth on a dowel rod like this and drag it across the edge of vegetation, through vegetation, and you look at it for ticks."

While they were following CDC guidelines and using the practice for research, she said families can also use this technique when camping outside or spending time in the woods.

Using flagging to reveal the number of ticks nearby, the ODU tick team found live ones while WTKR's cameras were rolling.

"It is a good tick year from a research perspective; it is a bad tick year from a human perspective," said Gaff. "Today as well in that process, we've actually discovered a couple tick species moving through our area from the south and a couple things coming down from the north, so we're in this crossing zone here in Virginia."

Gaff said the Lone Star tick, which is the most common but not the most disease-related, and blacklegged ticks, which cause lyme disease, seem to be the most prominent in Virginia this year.

"There are definitely some huge changes in tick-borne diseases in Virginia in the last 10 years. The other big concern in the last few years, of course, is the red meat allergy, which has been associated with the Lone Star tick," she said, while also expanding on where ticks are found on the body. "The dog tick, which is the least likely actually to have pathogens, will most often be found on the head. Blacklegged ticks, the ones that transmit Lyme, seem to really like the ankles."

Humans, unfortunately, are not the only ones at risk of finding the mites by our ankles and hairlines and being exposed to health risks.

Dr. Andrew Silverstone at the Veterinary Hospital of Virginia Beach said ticks often latch onto pets.

"Check between their paw pads, around their ears, the chin folds and their armpit and their groin," he said.

Like humans, tick bites can have a large impact on pets' day-to-day health.

"[We have seen] lameness, lethargy. In it's extreme case we can see some blood diseases, some anemias," Dr. Silverstone said. "[If your pet does in fact have a tick], if you remove it, put it in a plastic bag and freeze it. That way, if your vet thinks it should be tested for pathogens and the bacteria that ticks carry, that can be done."

Otherwise, it may take weeks for the animal itself to get tested.

Once you examine your pet, it's not a bad idea to examine yourself even if you haven't been outside.

"If you're seeing them on your pet, you may want to also check with your physician," Dr. Silverstone said.

Gaff said to protect yourself use repellent on your ankles, be aware of your surroundings and don't skip a full-body check once you're inside.

"We tell the public all the time that a good way to get ticks off you, especially if you get a lot of nymphs, is using lint rollers. It's the same kind of tape as what we're using with masking tape," she said. "Ironically, First Landing [in Virginia Beach] is the one place where you can go that we find very few ticks."

"So, if you're out in the woods -- and I encourage you to get outside -- and do that you just need to take more precautions," Dr. Silverstone added.

Your vet will be able to recommend the preventative they feel is most effective for your pet and your lifestyle. The veterinary prescription products come with manufacturer guarantees.