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Dog ticks burrow into Alaska, plan to stay

Rick Sinnott
Dog ticks are here to stay in Alaska. Jerry Kirkhart / cc via flickr

In 1925, when Leonhard Seppala and other mushers drove their teams of huskies in an unprecedented effort to deliver serum to rescue Nome from an outbreak of diphtheria, they didn’t have to worry about dog ticks. When Libby Riddles won the now-famous Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in 1985, she probably didn’t worry about ticks either. Dog ticks didn’t exist in Alaska way back then. They do now.

I know Alaskans, my wife among them, who, when asked why they like living in Alaska more than other places, can quickly rattle (I almost wrote “tick”) off three important reasons: no poisonous snakes, no scorpions, no ticks. If you are one of those Alaskans, scratch “no ticks” off the list.

Alaska has long harbored several native species of ticks that pierce the skin and lap up the blood of rodents, hares and seabirds and occasionally their predators. A few people have noticed these ticks, typically after they -- or their dog or cat -- has handled a squirrel, vole or hare.

But several more infamous ticks from other states are new arrivals. Unlike Alaska’s native ticks, the newcomers have long specialized on feeding on dogs and other medium-sized and large mammals. And the tough little ectoparasites themselves aren’t the main concern; it’s the diseases they can transmit to people and other animals.

More and more ticks

Dr. Kimberlee Beckmen, the sole veterinarian with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, is becoming well acquainted with ticks. She says people who don’t realize ticks are found in Alaska bring them to her all the time. Several years ago she started noticing an alarming change in the species’ composition. Some of the ticks were new to Alaska.

Although she still receives specimens of the largely innocuous native ticks, she has “detected an increasing incidence of dog ticks that are exotic to Alaska on not just dogs but people and cats.”

Until a couple of years ago, Beckmen assumed these ticks were hitching rides to Alaska on dogs brought up from the tick-ridden Lower 48 states and Canada. And, in fact, many of the ticks she’s seen arrived in Alaska that way. It used to be that as long as your dog stayed in Alaska, you didn’t have to worry about ticks. But that comforting thought is no longer true.

Beckmen has investigated 48 tick infestations in the past three years. She’s found evidence that two exotic species are established and reproducing in Alaska. Dog ticks are being found on dogs and people who haven’t left Alaska. Beckmen has sent tick specimens to specialists for identification. They have identified not one, but four new species of ticks in Alaska.

The brown dog tick seems to be the most prevalent so far, with 13 cases involving dogs and humans from Fairbanks, Anchorage and Sitka. In 2013 Beckmen found several severely infested dogs in Fairbanks. A boarding kennel in Fairbanks has suffered multiple outbreaks. Beckmen has observed all life stages: larvae, nymphs and adults.

These are indications that the brown dog tick is here to stay. Our long, cold winters are not a deterrent. Brown dog ticks prefer to live indoors, in homes and kennels, where an infestation can be extremely difficult to eradicate.

The American dog tick has been found in 10 cases involving dogs and humans from North Pole, Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, Sitka, Valdez, Willow and Denali National Park. This is the other species that seems to be established in Alaska and reproducing in the wild. Other species found in Alaska include the Rocky Mountain wood tick, with two cases involving dogs in Sitka and Anchorage, and the lone star tick, with two cases involving dogs from Fairbanks and Eagle River. Beckmen is not yet convinced that these two ticks are established in state.

A good guide to these ticks -- with photos of their life stages, scientific names, and other information -- can be found at the University of Rhode Island's TickEncounter Resource Center

Vectors of infectious diseases

Just the sight of a tick crawling across their skin or embedded in a tender spot is enough to give some people the heebie-jeebies. But ticks are also vectors of infectious diseases, and the potential for introducing new pathogens into Alaska’s wildlife -- not to mention pets and people -- is fueling Beckmen’s growing concern. Two diseases that can be transmitted by tick bites -- tularemia and Q-fever -- are already established in Alaska.

Beckmen worries that a suite of serious diseases that can be transmitted by ticks are looming on the horizon. These include Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, canine ehrlichiosis, canine babesiosis, anaplasmosis, tick paralysis, and tick fever.

A single bite from an infected tick could introduce any one of these diseases into the state. Most of these diseases are zoonotic, meaning they can be transmitted from wild animals, pets and livestock to humans. 

Besides transmitting diseases to dogs, cats, and humans, Beckmen believes ticks might eventually affect Alaska’s wildlife. Wild canids -- wolves, coyotes and foxes -- can also serve as hosts for dog ticks. The most likely scenario would be for a dog tick to climb on board a fox or coyote, the species most likely to inhabit areas currently under siege by ticks. But at least three of the tick species newly arrived in Alaska will accept deer as hosts as well.

An ounce of prevention

Compared to all the angst and money spent a few years ago over the potential for avian flu reaching Alaska, almost nobody is waving red flags because of the ticks. Beckmen would like Alaskans to know that dog ticks are no longer a hypothetical concern. They have arrived.

But perhaps the situation is not out of control. As always, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. According to Beckmen, many veterinarians and most Alaskans were unaware of the recent introduction of exotic ticks in the state. About a year ago she and Dr. Robert Gerlach, the state veterinarian, sent a letter to Alaska vets, advising them of her preliminary findings and asking them to consider tick-borne diseases in diagnostic tests.

A concerted effort might eradicate one or both of the tick species that appear to be established in the state. Considering how uninformed and apathetic many people are, it’s probably too late for that to work. However, controlling these outbreaks and fending off future outbreaks are worth pursuing.

Beckmen recommends treating dogs for ticks before bringing them into the state. Warn your friends and family to do the same. She’s gone so far as to suggest regular treatments with a tick preventative for dogs living in Anchorage, North Pole or Fairbanks that are at high risk for encountering ticks; in other words, those that live in tick-infested houses, run off lead, or are boarded. If preventatives are not used, then dogs returning home from Outside or a local boarding kennel may be treated with “an appropriate systemic product that kills ticks.” Beckmen suggests products that contain fipronil, permethrin or selamectin -- all effective against ticks. It’s a good idea to check with your veterinarian before using these medications.

Embedded ticks can also be plucked with a tweezers.  Bear in mind, however, that fluids squeezed from an infected tick may be contagious. You should wear a disposable glove or use a tissue to avoid getting any fluid in a cut or on your skin. And wash your hands afterward.

Beckmen is monitoring this issue closely and would appreciate reports of ticks be sent via email, with specimens taken to a local Fish and Game office for identification, if possible.

Predictably, some people won’t know or care that their pets are infested with ticks. Don’t be afraid to ask them to deal with it. It’s not just their pets that will suffer when ticks expand their toehold in Alaska. You’ll never win the universal acclaim bestowed upon Seppala and his lead dog, Togo, but you might also save someone’s life.

Rick Sinnott is a former Alaska Department of Fish and Game wildlife biologist. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact him at rickjsinnott(at)gmail.com.