Dogs and ticks have a long history together. And because of that relationship, man's best friend is a good indicator of how prevalent Lyme disease is in an area.
In Monroe County, the number of dogs testing positive for Lyme disease has been increasing. So far this year, 550 Monroe County dogs have tested positive for the disease, according to the Companion Animal Parasite Council, a national veterinary advisory group. By comparison, 479 dogs tested positive in all of 2011.
Human cases are rising, too. In 2012, Monroe County physicians reported 40 cases of Lyme disease, up from four cases in 2002, according to the State Department of Health.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection transmitted by deer ticks, which are also known as black-footed ticks. And growing tick populations in Monroe County and other parts of the state are the likely culprit behind the increase in Lyme cases, says Laura Harrington, chair of Cornell University's Entomology Department.
"If you zoom in and look at counties, we're definitely seeing increases in places where we haven't seen it before," Harrington says.
Harrington says that through her research work she's seen signs that the tick population has grown. Her lab is receiving more samples for identification from doctors' offices, she says. And she's been collecting more ticks in the field than she's been able to collect in the past, she says.
A few factors could be driving tick population growth. Monroe County and other areas are experiencing fewer extended periods of extreme cold weather, Harrington says, and that could mean more ticks are surviving through the winter. Other Cornell researchers say places with dense deer populations also tend to have more ticks.
Ticks tend to hang out in wooded areas and shaded, grassy places, especially if those places are moist or near water. Public health officials offer a few recommendations to avoid bites, such as wearing pants and long-sleeved shirts, wearing insect repellent and checking for ticks after outdoor activity.
Pet owners should also check their dogs and cats for ticks. Cats and dogs can get Lyme disease, too.
Early signs of Lyme disease can include a bull's-eye rash and flu-like symptoms. Left untreated, the disease can cause more severe problems like arthritis or neurological issues. More information on Lyme disease is available on the State Department of Health website: http://www.health.ny.gov/publications/2813/.