It’s the time of year to think tick checks and prevention in Northwest Colorado
It’s that time of year again in the Yampa Valley — tick check and prevention season for both humans and pets.
“Check for ticks in armpits, around the sock line, in the groin area and in hair,” said Lauren Bryan, infection prevention program manager at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “Remember to check children and pets, too.”
Veterinarian office staff in Steamboat Springs say some dogs have already come into the clinics with ticks this spring. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise to check for ticks on dogs in and around the ears, around the eyelids and tail, under the collar and front legs, between the back legs and between the toes.
Dr. Chris Schwarz, owner of Pet Kare Clinic in Steamboat, believes this year’s tick season — which is traditionally April, May and June, or longer with summer rains — could be worse than past drier years.
“As long as there is humidity and stays somewhat cool, ticks will remain higher on vegetation and more apt to attach onto passing animals or humans,” Schwarz said.
According to the CDC, signs of tick-borne disease in dogs may not appear for seven to 21 days or longer after a bite, so pet owners should watch dogs closely for changes in behavior or appetite.
Although the Yampa Valley is spared from high tick volumes compared to other parts of the state and country, the Rocky Mountain wood tick, which is red and teardrop shaped, is prevalent in Routt County, but less so in Moffat County. Experts say American dog ticks also are found in the Yampa Valley.
Researchers believe tick numbers and bites are increasing in Colorado.
“The tick numbers and densities are changing across the U.S. based on climate change, human encroachment into wildlife territories and deer migration,” said Heather Szerlong, Ph.D., a Steamboat Springs native and CEO of Ticknology in Fort Collins.
A 1992 Steamboat Springs High School graduate, Szerlong has been studying ticks for a decade and co-founded Ticknology in 2015. The lab conducts tests on thousands of ticks across the country each year for Lyme disease and other tick-borne illnesses.
Szerlong said tick numbers in Colorado traditionally have been underreported because tick surveillance such as dragging and collection studies are not common such as in other states, especially in the northeastern U.S.
“In Steamboat I had one tick bite my entire childhood. Now my advice is, ‘You have to take precautions,'” said Szerlong, age 49. “We need to change our behavior and start doing our tick diligence before we even go outside and do the things we love to do.”
According to information put out by Colorado State University’s College of Natural Sciences in November 2022, ticks capable of carrying diseases such as Colorado tick fever and tick-borne paralysis pose an emerging threat in the state. With the help of the public who sent in ticks for testing, a study conducted by CSU researchers and other entities showed that American dog ticks are present in 16 counties in Colorado where they were not previously identified by the CDC. Rocky Mountain wood ticks were found in 38 of the 64 Colorado counties, when the previous count was 33 counties.
Rocky Mountain wood ticks appear to be more attracted to humans, representing 58% of ticks attached to humans, according to the study, and American dog ticks represented 92% of ticks attached to dogs.
“It was interesting to us to see American dog ticks in unexpected counties in Colorado, which appear to be invading from nearby states or traveling with people and pets,” said study co-author Daniel Salkeld, CSU research scientist. “This study is a red flag that, on the county level, it is necessary to increase tick surveillance locally and, on an individual level, to take precautions and know the symptoms of tick-borne diseases.”
Szerlong recommends testing ticks when disease symptoms develop. Her lab charges $35 to test ticks mailed in to determine species and possible disease. She said the ticks need to be kept dry in a sealed plastic baggie, and long-term storage is best in the freezer.
“It’s a good idea to understand what bit you or your companion animal, and you have to look for symptoms for 30 days afterward,” Szerlong said.
Experts say the best way to avoid contracting a tick-borne disease is education and prevention techniques such as wearing light-colored long pants to be able to see ticks, wearing long-sleeved shirts, using 0.5% Permethrin on clothing and considering use of repellent that contains DEET. Ticks are present especially in wooded, brushy and tall grass areas. Check clothing, gear and pets for ticks after spending time outdoors in tick-prone areas.
When a tick latches on to a human or pet, the same removal tips apply. Experts say remove the tick as soon as possible by using tweezers close to the skin, pulling the tick straight out gently and cleaning the skin area.
The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment provided a regional update on ticks noting that no cases of Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever or tick-borne relapsing fever were reported in past 10 years in residents of Routt or Moffat counties.
One case of tularemia, also known as rabbit fever, was reported in a Routt County resident in 2016. However, tularemia spreads in multiple ways, and the case was more likely due to an animal exposure.
Generally, tick-borne diseases are reported to public health when there is a positive laboratory test, but it is possible that tick-borne diseases are under-reported because not all people who are ill get tested.
While the Rocky Mountain wood tick is the most common in northwestern Colorado, the American dog tick also is found in Routt County and surrounding areas. Both Rocky Mountain wood and American dog ticks are expected to expand their geographic range over time. People should also be aware of soft ticks, which are rare, but are associated with rustic cabins, especially those that may have rodents.
The CDPHE relies on partners across the state to send in ticks for identification. Currently, the state does not have funding to actively collect ticks from across Colorado for general tick monitoring. Residents, veterinarians and physicians can submit ticks to the CDPHE for free identification, but not disease testing. The submission form is located on the CDPHE Tick-borne Diseases webpage under the “Submit a Tick” link.
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