Invasive ticks catching a ride on pets and animals moving into Alberta could pose a very real danger to the province, according to a recent study at the University of Alberta.
Despite the widely-held assumption that Alberta is tick-free, the first comprehensive province-wide survey of ticks carried out in more than four decades has shown a diverse tick presence which could be driven by the travel of migratory animals — and traveling pets.
Daniel Fitzgerald, a Masters student in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life and Environmental Sciences, has been challenging the idea that Alberta is tick-free through his thesis, which investigates the presence of ticks in Alberta.
In total, Fitzgerald’s study discovered 16 species of ticks in the province.
Fitzgerald’s work asserts the danger of an increased tick presence is important to acknowledge because some ticks act as vectors for diseases.
One species that Fitzgerald uncovered, Ixodes scapularis, is the most common vector for Lyme disease.
“The Lyme disease is actually caused by the infection of a bacteria called Borrelia burgdorferi,” Fitzgerald said.
He explained this species of tick picks up the bacteria and transmits it to its next host.
His findings also show that ticks have always had a presence in Alberta, although that presence may be diversifying due to out-of-province travel.
“Ever since people started looking for ticks here in Alberta they’ve been finding them,” he said. “Dogs and pets are very good at bringing ticks into Alberta.”
Fitzgerald’s study focused on pets that had visited veterinary clinics and had been carrying ticks.
“We asked vet clinics across the province to send in ticks they found on their patients (and) information on the host animals, such as age ... travel history, that kind of thing,” Fitzgerald said.
“From that, I was able to piece together a picture of which ticks lived where in Alberta. One interesting thing I found was that one out of three dogs (who had ticks) — the owner didn’t even know it was there.”
Of the pets from Fitzgerald’s data, 60 per cent had left the province, and of those, some travelled as far away as Mexico, Turkey and Hungary.
Some of these pets had not travelled out of Alberta at all.
“A lot of people think they have to go out to a mountain or a campground to acquire a tick but that’s not true,” Fitzgerald said.
“Samples actually came from within Edmonton and Calgary — sometimes from pets who hadn’t even left their backyard.”
Fitzgerald doesn’t think there is a reason for people to be worried about Lyme disease in Western Canada, but he does believe it is worth considering whether ticks are transitioning from being an invasive species to a domestic species.
“We are under constant pressure of ticks being brought here. But are some of these ticks who are being dropped off actually catching on? I think now we’re at the point where we should ask whether they are establishing here,” Fitzgerald said.
“I don’t know of any Alberta-acquired Lyme disease infections. Every case has been from out-of-province travel. Based on the numbers from my research, the number isn’t zero but the chance is small. This could be something we might need to think about for the future.”
Since ticks are a species which lives in the parklands and grasslands, Fitzgerald believes direct assaults against them have failed in areas such as the United States, and would be expensive and ineffective because they are so small. He recommends more efficient means to combat ticks.
“At the larval stage they are the size of a moving freckle — it’s like trying to find a grain of sand on a big shaggy dog. It would be a bit of a losing battle to try to remove this tick. It would be better to direct limited resources to focus on education. You can check yourself; you can check your pets,” he said.
“It’s estimated it takes 24 to 72 hours before the tick can give the bacteria to you. It is possible (to identify them) — you just have to look closely.”
Fitzgerald’s research was funded by Alberta Agriculture and Rural Development.
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