Ticks are on the move in Maine, especially dog ticks which have been reported in numbers far exceeding last year's count. A dog tick, right, is twice the size of the Lyme disease-carrying deer tick seen on the left. Credit: Courtesy of Griffin Dill

With the number of ticks expected to be higher this summer than in previous years, it’s not just people and their pets who should take precautions when outside. Homesteaders and farmers need to check their livestock on a daily basis for the parasitic arachnids.

Maine is home to 16 species of ticks. Of those, American dog, brown dog, Gulf Coast, lone star, winter and deer ticks have been known to feed on livestock species.

“Yes, livestock can get some ticks and I guess one of the nice things about ticks is they tend to be somewhat choosy about their hosts,” said Dr. Anne Lichtenwalner, director of the University of Maine Veterinary Diagnostic Laboratory. “One of the not nice things is that ticks are parasites and they can sometimes carry a disease to the host, so it’s not just the ‘ick’ factor of seeing ticks on your livestock.”

Matching the tick to the animal

The American brown tick — also known as the dog tick — uses swine as a host and some homesteaders are reporting them in large numbers this year.

Swine can also be a host for the winter tick, according to Lichtenwalner. That’s the same tick state wildlife officials report have infested the state moose population are blamed for being the leading cause of death in moose under a year old.

Winter ticks do not carry any disease, according to state biologists, but they can attach to an animal in numbers large enough to cause significant blood loss of the host.

The Lyme disease-carrying deer tick does not go after swine, but it will use horses as a host and can infect them with lyme disease, according to Lichtenwalner.

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Deer ticks also carry anaplasmosis which is the most common tick-borne disease affecting horses, according to University of Minnesota Extension. In horses, anaplasmosis causes fever, lethargy, swollen joints and jaundice. When humans get anaplasmosis, they experience some similar symptoms (and some worse ones) including fever, headaches, muscle aches, gastrointestinal distress and in extreme cases organ failure, respiratory failure and death.

Horses, along with goats and cows, can also be hosts to American brown ticks and lone star ticks.

Livestock can also be a host for the lone star tick. When this tick bites a person it can cause alpha-gal syndrome, a recently identified allergy to red meat. The lone star tick is not commonly found in Maine, but there have been cases of alpha-gal allergies reported in the state, according to the University of Maine Cooperative Extension Tick Lab.

All mammals other than humans and apes carry the alpha-gal carbohydrate. The tick has to first feed on an animal where it picks up that carbohydrate. If that tick then feeds on a human, the alpha-gal can trigger that allergic reaction.

It’s bad this year

Kami Gullickson, owner of Sunny Hill Stables in Frankfort, said the ticks are so bad this year that she is constantly worried about the eight horses on her farm contracting anaplasmosis or Lyme disease.

“It’s really alarming,” Gullickson said. “I sometimes feel like there is not enough I can do.”

Gullickson is accustomed to pulling one or two ticks from the eight horses each day. But a few weeks ago, when the horses were five days away from their reapplication of monthly tick repellent, she pulled 20 ticks from a single horse one night.

She’s not alone in seeing the increase of ticks on livestock.

“Our American guinea hogs got ticks bad,” said Joseph Mailhot, an off-grid homesteader in Livermore. “The kids noticed the ticks a few weeks ago while giving belly rubs to the pigs and there were dozens of ticks in the armpit areas of all four legs.”

Other homesteaders have reported picking ticks off new-born piglets and observing ticks climbing all over fencing and the sides of animal shelters.

Gullickson said the explosion in the tick population has forced her to re-route trail rides to avoid anywhere that ticks could come in contact with horses or riders such as tall grass, shrubs and bushes.

“I’m considering not doing trail rides at all and just riding on dirt roads,” she said. “I have to plan my rides based on ticks.”

Mailhot is taking steps to try controlling the tick population around his farm. He mows the grass around his house, keeps tick-eating free-range chickens and rubs his pigs down with natural diatomaceous earth which has been shown to be a non-chemical option for killing ticks.

Lichtenwalner said the topical tick repellants can help keep them off livestock, but people should make sure they read and follow all instructions and make sure to get the appropriate product for the livestock species.

“You should always be careful when you are treating your animals,” Lichtenwalner said. “Always talk to your veterinarian first about what you should use.”

Beyond that, Lichtenwalner recommends keeping grass levels as low as possible in areas where livestock congregate and make sure to check them every day for ticks.

All are things Gullickson is committed to doing as thoroughly as possible.

“I walk away from my tick check every night and say ‘I bet I missed one,’” she said. “So I go back and check again.”

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Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.