About 300,000 people are diagnosed with Lyme disease every year, according to estimates from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Lyme disease is caused by bacteria that multiply in the bodies of ticks, people, and animals, including mice, deer, and dogs. The largest percentage of human Lyme disease cases are concentrated in only 16 states situated throughout the Northeast, Mid-Atlantic, and Upper Midwest, but infections have been reported across the country and into Canada. Scientists predict that Lyme disease will continue to spread as climate change causes an increase in the humid summer conditions and mild fall weather favored by the tiny blacklegged deer tick, which is the most common transmitter of Lyme disease.
These deer ticks pick up Lyme bacteria (Borrelia burgdorferi) when they feed on the blood of infected mice, chipmunks, and other hosts. Infected ticks in both the nymphal and adult life stages can then transfer the Lyme bacteria to humans if they latch on for a meal and feed for approximately 36 hours or more. Lyme disease is highly treatable when it’s detected early, but it’s devastating when the infection goes unnoticed for more than a few months. An early generation Lyme disease vaccine is available for dogs, but people must rely on other defensive measures to avoid ticks and the diseases they can carry. If you’re interested in getting your dog vaccinated for Lyme disease, ask your veterinarian to discuss the options with you.
Let Poultry Help with Tick Prevention
Leafy wooded areas and grassy meadows are the preferred habitats for blacklegged deer ticks and American dog ticks, which both spend their larval stage in leaf litter, their nymphal stage on small animals, and their adult stage in tall grass or other shrubby vegetation. People have learned to get rid of ticks by keeping foraging chickens and guinea fowl on their property. In April 2015, our sister publication, Mother Earth News, launched a survey about chickens and ticks, and responses revealed that:
- 71 percent had an existing tick problem before they got poultry.
- 78 percent kept poultry that helped control or eliminate ticks within the birds’
- 46 percent experienced a drop in tick populations within a month after getting poultry, and 45 percent saw good control after several months to a year.
Many respondents noted that small bantam chickens and game hens can get into tight spots where larger birds can’t fit, resulting in better tick control.
For maximum effectiveness, poultry should be allowed to feed in leaf litter starting in early spring, because that’s where ticks and their eggs hide out during winter. Poultry will eagerly work their way through leaf piles and ground debris when given the opportunity. Poultry also help control other pests, including mosquitoes, grasshoppers, and even snakes.
Permethrin-Treated Clothes and ‘Tick Tubes’
If you live in a state where the risk of Lyme disease is high, learning how to get rid of ticks should be a top priority. You might want to consider using permethrin, a nonorganic pesticide that repels and kills ticks. Permethrin is more potent and persistent than the organic materials we usually recommend. We suggest using a formula designed to be applied to clothing, rather than misters, sprayers, foggers, or other permethrin products. Clothing products that are pretreated with permethrin are available, or you can buy permethrin with instructions for how to use it to treat your clothes. Studies suggest a link between pesticide exposure and autism in children, and the EPA has classified permethrin as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans,” so weigh the risk of infrequent exposure against the risk of Lyme disease in your area.
You might also consider permethrin-infused “tick tubes,” which are designed to kill ticks on white-footed mice, chipmunks, and rats — the main animals from which ticks become infected with Lyme. The tick tubes offer nesting materials impregnated with the pesticide to such critters. The animals take the material back to their nests, where it kills any ticks that may have latched on to the adults and their young. The small amount of permethrin used in tick tubes is not water-soluble, so it’s not likely to end up anywhere but in a nest.
Sold commercially as Damminix Tick Tubes, these devices are easy to make yourself. Wear rubber gloves and saturate cotton balls, strips of cloth, dryer lint, or other rodent nesting materials with a permethrin product made to go on clothing and tents. Then, loosely pack the treated material into pieces of plastic pipes about the size of a toilet paper roll, and place them behind logs, in brush piles, or in other locations rodents often visit. In suburban and urban landscapes, dense ground cover has been found to be an enticing attraction for mice, so it’s a good place to put tick tubes. After mice and other rodents empty the tubes, replace or reload the pipes. This is best done twice a year — once in spring and again in fall.
Herbal Tick Repellents
Many of the survey respondents reported that they apply veterinary-prescribed tick preventatives on their dogs and cats, but would prefer more organic repellents. Two plant-based aromatics — sweet-scented “rose” geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) essential oil and Eastern red cedar (Juniperus virginiana; also known as “red cedarwood”) essential oil — were repeatedly recommended by readers who use them as spray-on repellents for pets and family members alike. Respondents theorized that these two plant aromatics mask your natural odors, which makes it harder for questing ticks to find you. Both geranium and Eastern red cedar essential oils have proven to be successful repellents against ticks in various life stages, according to the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry and the Journal of Medical Entomology, respectively.
Using full-strength essential oil can injure human skin and overwhelm pets’ sensitive noses, so follow this simple recipe when making a liquid anti-tick spray: In an 8-ounce spray bottle, combine 10 to 20 drops of rose geranium or Eastern red cedar essential oil with 1 teaspoon of vodka or rubbing alcohol. Fill the rest of the bottle with water, and shake to combine. The spray can be applied to your skin or clothing. You can spray your dogs’ collars, or spritz the spots where you would apply other tick preventatives — between the animal’s shoulder blades and at the base of the tail. Before taking your dogs into woods, where they’re likely to pick up ticks, you can lightly spray their legs, too.
You can also add dry herbs to your tick-fighting arsenal for pets. Strew dried and pulverized wormwood (Artemisia absinthium) or pennyroyal (Mentha pulegium) leaves on pet beds and outdoor sleeping areas to repel mites and ticks. If you have beautyberry bushes (Callicarpa americana), you can use the leaves (or a strong tea made from them) to repel ticks, fleas, and mosquitoes. USDA scientists in Maryland have validated this historic use of beautyberry, according to findings published in Experimental and Applied Acarology. Two beautyberry compounds, callicarpenal and intermedeol, have even been found to repel fire ants. Research continues into beautyberry’s safety and best uses, so for now we suggest the pillowcase approach: Add dried leaves to a cloth pouch placed in your pets’ beds, or lightly spray your pets’ beds with beautyberry tea.
More Tick Prevention Tricks
Fencing out deer, the primary hosts of adult Lyme-infected ticks, can help prevent ticks from reaching your land. Low-cost, plastic-mesh deer fencing is available online and at farm stores. In addition, ticks rarely inhabit lawns that are mowed regularly. Raking up and composting leaves deprives overwintering ticks of shelter.
When hiking where tick populations are high, stay on the trails and pull your socks up over your pants. If wearing shorts, cut off and discard the ankle/feet sections of old socks, spray the tube portions with a repellent, and wear them like leg warmers.
A study published in Experimental and Applied Acarology found that spraying outdoor areas with Safer-brand organic insecticidal soap in spring can provide treatment that’s equally as effective as spraying with the insecticide chlorpyrifos.
After you’ve been outdoors, check your dogs for any ticks that may have latched on, then make your way to a hot, soapy shower, and follow up with a thorough body check. You can kill any ticks that have attached to your clothing by immediately putting your clothes into the dryer for 15 minutes on the hottest setting, and then washing them. Most ticks are sensitive to dry heat, but may survive even the hottest wash.
Studies have shown that it usually takes an infected tick 36 to 48 hours after biting its host to begin transmitting Lyme disease, which is why spotting and removing ticks as soon as possible is important. Ticks in the nymph stage — when they’re about the size of poppy seeds — are active in late spring and early summer, and are the hardest to find on your body. These ticks pose the largest Lyme threat to humans and pets.
Lyme Disease Update
A circular bull’s-eye rash around a tick bite is a common indication associated with Lyme disease, but any tick bite that stays red and inflamed should be seen by a doctor who’s familiar with Lyme disease. A course of appropriate antibiotics taken within three weeks of infection usually cures it.
When untreated, Lyme disease can become chronic Lyme disease, which causes headaches, body pain, lethargy, and other complications. Some patients with chronic Lyme disease respond to antibiotics, while others adapt as well as they can, often with the help of a Lyme-Literate Doctor (LLMD) and support groups. The Lyme Disease Network features an online library and hosts support groups, listed by state, and the American Lyme Disease Foundation has a number of helpful online resources. Some online support groups follow the protocols outlined by Richard Horowitz, M.D., in his book Why Can’t I Get Better? Solving the Mystery of Lyme and Chronic Disease, available at our store.
10 Options for Tick Control
- Raise free-range poultry.
- Maintain wide, mowed walking paths.
- Use herbal insect repellents.
- Install deer fencing around your property.
- Place “tick tubes” strategically.
- Rake up and compost leaf litter in the fall.
- Wear protective, light-colored clothing when outdoors.
- Check your body closely for ticks after being outside.
- After time outdoors, put clothes in a hot dryer for 15 minutes before washing.
- Wear permethrin-treated clothing for extra protection.
Barbara Pleasant lives in southwest Virginia, where she raises vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers, as well as a few chickens to help control ticks. She also enjoys cooking, preserving, and fermenting foods.