Deer spread Lyme ticks in suburban backyards

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By Steven Reinberg
Health Day Reporter

TUESDAY, September 20, 2022 (HealthDay News) — You look so cute and are quietly grazing in your garden. But overpopulation of white-tailed deer in the Northeastern United States could be helping spread Lyme disease and another tick-borne disease, anaplasmosis, especially in suburban areas, a new study suggests.

Research indicates that these deer, which carry ticks that transmit the two diseases, are no longer confined to wooded areas, but often live in close proximity to suburban homes, increasing the risk of transmission.

“Their yard is their home, and if you’re concerned about ticks or tick management or the damage it might cause, you need to realize that this is where they actually live and are either working with them or working against them,” he said lead researcher Jennifer Mullinax. She is an assistant professor of wildlife ecology and management at the University of Maryland.

The deer themselves are not dangerous to health. But the black-legged (stag ticks) and solitary star ticks they carry spread Lyme and other diseases, Mullinax explained.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the bite of an infected tick. It causes symptoms like skin rash, fever, headache and fatigue. Left untreated, it can spread to the heart, joints, and nervous system. Anaplasmosis causes similar symptoms and can lead to bleeding and kidney failure.

The ticks that cause these diseases nest and breed on your lawn.

As development encroaches into their habitats, deer are living closer to humans, and landscapes offer easy grazing, shrubs and flowers, Mullinax said. Her lawn is “warm, safe, there are fewer predators and it’s just convenient,” she said.

This five-year study found that suburban deer often spend the night within 55 meters of human homes.

For the study, the Mullinax team tracked 51 deer equipped with GPS tracking devices.

The trackers showed that deer avoid residential areas during the day but are drawn to them at night, especially in winter. The animals often slept near lawn edges and in yards of houses and apartment buildings.

Having so many deer in residential areas increases the risk of people coming into contact with tick-borne diseases, Mullinax said. Reducing tick populations by removing deer or treating areas where deer are settling can help limit the spread of disease, she said.

Controlled deer hunting can help keep tick populations in check, but herd culling can be difficult to accomplish, the study pointed out. People don’t want suburban hunters, and chemically reducing deer fertility hasn’t worked, she added.

Mullinax said it’s possible to restrict access to your yard by installing deer fencing or mulch barriers, but a better way to prevent disease might be to control the tick population.

“Most people get Lyme disease from the ticks in their yard. There are many different ways to control ticks,” she said. “For county and state agencies, it’s really an indication that they need to make some adjustments to how they manage the deer population.”

dr Marc Siegel is a clinical professor of medicine at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City who reviewed the findings.

He suggested several strategies to reduce the tick population in your yard: Cut your grass short. Have your garden sprayed for ticks. Use tick repellent. And check your body and clothing for ticks after spending time outdoors.

“I tell them to check their scalp and pubic area for bumps,” Siegel said. “I’m telling them if you’re feeling tired, it may not be COVID — it may be Lyme disease.”

Because Lyme disease can be difficult to diagnose, Siegel said he’s not afraid to prescribe antibiotics if he suspects Lyme disease based on symptoms alone.

“I’m in the over-the-top category,” he said. “But this study doesn’t make me look bad because it basically says these things are getting out of hand. We expect many more diseases to emerge.”

The research was published online September 17 in the journal Urban Ecosystems.

More information

More about Lyme disease is available from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Jennifer Mullinax, PhD, Assistant Professor, Wildlife Ecology and Management, University of Maryland, College Park; Marc Siegel, MD, Clinical Professor, Medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center, New York City; urban ecosystems, online September 17, 2022

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