A fully engorged tick hitched a ride indoors after latching on to an unsuspecting outdoors lover in December. Unusually warm temperatures have kept deer ticks active into winter. Credit: Emily Burnham / BDN

It may be winter but if you’re spending any time outdoors, you should keep checking yourself and your pets for ticks when you get back inside.

“With recent years and these warm winters, it’s not unprecedented by any means to be seeing tick activity now,” said Griffin Dill, who heads up the tick laboratory at the University of Maine. “Unfortunately it’s our new normal.”

With reports of ticks every month in Maine for the past couple of years, there is no longer a “tick season.” Since ticks are not true hibernators — they become active again when temperatures rise — the state’s unseasonably warm winter weather is driving an increase in tick activity.

Dill said his lab received tick specimen submissions for testing through December and have already gotten a few since the start of the year.

“We know that the adult stage of the black legged tick — or deer tick — is very active in the fall,” Dill said. “That fall peak can extend well into the winter if temperatures allow and we had a really warm December and a warm start to the new year.”

Maine is home to several species of ticks but it’s deer ticks that are of greatest concern because they transmit Lyme disease, a serious illness that can cause rashes, joint pain, nerve pain and inflammation of the brain or spinal cord.

Those are the ticks active right now, according to Dill.

Deer ticks can also carry and transmit powassan, a virus that causes brain infection in humans. Last year a Waldo County resident died after contracting the disease.

Bangor’s average temperature was 5.7 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than usual in December, according to the scientific climate change group Climate Central. Average temperatures in Bangor have risen 5.2 degrees Fahrenheit overall since 1970.

“When it gets colder the ticks burrow a bit into the soil or under leaf litter where it’s nice and insulated,” Dill said. “Any snow we receive is added insulation and they will spend the cold times in a state of dormancy.”

The National Weather Service is predicting warmer-than-average temperatures to continue through January in Maine.

Dill encourages anyone who spends time outdoors when it’s above 40 degrees Fahrenheit to conduct full body checks when they get back inside. Pets should also be checked over.

“It’s a very good thing to consider if you are out hiking or doing any other winter activity and it’s above freezing,” Dill said. “It’s less likely you will have a tick on you than in the summer, but the possibility is still there and it’s a good habit anytime to conduct those checks.”

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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.