June 21, 2018 -- With tick populations and tick-borne diseases on the rise, some people are turning to unconventional methods of prevention.
In one Pennsylvania town, they’re trying opossums.
The Pocono Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education Center in Stroudsburg says that many people have requested opossums to release into their yards. The popular program got started in 2016.
“Opossums not only eat a lot of dead things, but they really love to eat ticks,” says Kathy Uhler, director of the center. “One of these opossums can eat up to 5,000 ticks a year. In the 38 years I’ve been working with them, I have never seen one tick, louse, or flea on an opossum. They are meticulously clean.”
Pennsylvania leads the nation in confirmed cases of Lyme disease.
“Lots of people pick the opossums up on the side of the road and call us. A lot of times they’ll go ahead and put them into their yards. It makes them feel good that they’re releasing tick control into their yard, and since there aren’t any diseases that people can get from opossums, there really is no downside,” Uhler says.
Experts, however, warn that opossums can still be dangerous to humans.
“Although generally gentle and placid, opossums have 50 teeth and will use them to protect themselves, or their young. So avoid close encounters,” the Washington Department of Fish & Wildlife advises.
Uhler says the center takes in around 75 to 100 opossums per year. The only requirements for having one released at a home are an acre of land, no cats, and minimal car traffic.
“People tend to kill all the predators around their houses, and then they wonder why they have diseases. Our bigger point is to get people to allow that balance,” Uhler says.
Tick tubes are another method gaining traction in the Northeast as a method of tick prevention.
Available pre-made or to make on your own, these small tubes are filled with insecticide-soaked cotton and placed in areas where mice run around. White-footed mice, which are major carriers of deer ticks, remove the cotton from the tube and build nests with it. The laced cotton kills any ticks on the mice.
But how well they work isn’t known, and there is no real way to measure results.
David Brooks, a blogger and reporter for the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire, is testing the tubes for himself using recycled household materials.
He received criticism for using permethrin, a known killer of bees and other wildlife, and admitted he wasn’t sure it would do any good.
“In this, using tick tubes is an act of faith, like lighting a candle in church or casting a vote for president. It may not make a difference, but at least it makes me feel better,” Brooks wrote in his blog post.
“The Tick App” is part of a research study by Columbia University and the University of Wisconsin -- Madison. Both universities are members of the CDC Regional Centers of Excellence in Vector-Borne Diseases. It helps to track tick concentration and educate its users on tick prevention and removal.
The app is currently based in New York, Michigan, and Wisconsin -- all areas with high rates of Lyme disease. “The Tick App” informs individuals of tick activity by having its users report ticks in different areas.
When users download the app, they make a profile, consent to being part of the study, and answer a questionnaire. After the profile is complete, users start a daily diary to track their encounters with ticks.
A tick diary entry is short. It asks if the user found any ticks on family members or pets, what activities they completed, and if they used any tick prevention methods. There is an additional option to upload a photo of the tick for the researchers to view.
Once you start the diary, the app sends daily reminders to update. Researchers ask users to complete at least 15 reports, and the program automatically records users’ locations and the weather information in the area.
The app also provides a tick identification guide, information on how to remove a tick, and other helpful links.
As ticks have expanded to live all around the U.S., experts say there are tried-and-true ways to keep them away.
Simple landscape changes can create an unfriendly environment for a variety of ticks and hosts, and using insect repellents will help fight the pests.
- Mind the grass. Ticks are often found in the underbrush of tall grass, where they latch onto a host and crawl up the body. Keep lawns trimmed at home, and walk in the center of any trails. Clear leaf litter regularly, especially around the edge of your yard and around your home.
- Build a barrier. Placing a barrier between lawns and wooded areas can help keep ticks from moving into residential areas. If your house is near a wooded area, place a 3-foot wide barrier made of wood chips or gravel at the edge of your lawn.
- Use a pesticide. Spraying for ticks can help minimize exposure to these pests. Always research before using a pesticide to ensure that you are using the best type of pesticide and spraying at the right time of year.
- Repellents are key. There are many repellents available to keep ticks away. When choosing a spray repellent, select one with at least a 20% concentration of DEET, picaridin, or IR3535. There are natural alternatives available, including ones made from garlic oil, mixed essential oils, and fungus. Treat all clothing with permethrin, a chemical that paralyzes and kills ticks. A University of Rhode Island study found that people wearing permethrin-treated socks and shoes were 74 times more protected from ticks latching onto their shoes and legs.
- Check it out. If you have been in a grassy or wooded area, do a body check in the shower. Bathing within 2 hours of being outside can wash off any unattached ticks and has been shown to reduce the risk of Lyme disease. Be sure to check in these places:
- Inside and behind ears
- Back of neck
- Inside belly button
- Around waistline
- Behind knees
- Between toes
Additionally, remember to check all pets for ticks regularly. Ticks can come into a home on a pet and attach to a family member later.