Tick infestation adds to Central Floridians' woes

December 12, 2004|By Gary Taylor | Gary Taylor,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Long after the debris is gone, some Central Florida residents may still be feeling the effects of the 2004 hurricane season. In fact, for pet owners, the worst may be yet to come.

Lurking in the cracks and crevices of homes across the region may be ticks - thousands of them, in various stages of development - perhaps the result of just one tick that hitched a ride inside on the family dog.

Central Florida pest-control companies and veterinarians say there has been a notable increase in complaints about tick infestations since the three hurricanes ripped through Central Florida.

To be sure, common pests from ants to roaches have invaded homes by the thousands in the wake of the hurricanes. But most people are used to those bugs. The same cannot be said for ticks.

And while cooler weather may help keep some pests in check, it is not much of a deterrent to ticks.

The ticks have been in the woods and brush all along, but the hurricanes stirred them up, said Jerry Butler, an entomologist and retired University of Florida professor who has studied the parasites since 1962.

The recent outbreak "is probably related to habitat disturbance," Butler said. "The ticks were redistributed. It also may be that the deer and raccoons and possums are taking different paths."

Ticks are worse this year than at any time in Dr. Susan Wayne's more-than-16 years of practicing veterinary medicine.

"We've seen a lot of dogs that have tick infestation," said Wayne, of Murphy Veterinary Clinic in Sanford.

The leading product for fighting ticks is Frontline, because it kills them, she said. "We're selling a bunch of it, easily three times as much as last year."

Nick Silva, a canine instructor who lives in DeBary, said he uses Frontline but still has to check his dogs closely after they go outside for a walk. "This year has been the worst for me," said Silva, who has lived in DeBary for three years.

While residents may encounter as many as six different types of ticks, the brown dog tick is the most common, Butler said.

A tick has four stages in its life cycle, and it must find a host from which to feed on blood during the final three stages. Brown dog ticks rarely bite humans, though they will on occasion, Butler said, especially if they can't find a dog or other furry mammal. Cats are seldom affected.

"If they can't get a blood meal with animals, they will get on humans," said Phil Nichols, an entomologist with Middleton Pest Control. And that's usually when people start contacting pest-control companies. Tick complaints, he said, have increased during the past few months, though he couldn't say by how much.

When it comes to the brown dog tick, the good news is that the female lays fewer eggs than all other hard ticks, Butler said. The bad news is she may lay as many as 8,000 eggs, though the ticks typically lay a mass of 1,000 to 3,000 eggs. The eggs hatch into larva, often called seed ticks.

"Most ticks die as larva, failing to find a host," Butler said. "Otherwise, we'd be neck-deep in ticks."

The eggs are laid around baseboards, window and door casings, curtains, furniture and the edge of rugs. Once the eggs hatch, the larva can live for months until they find a blood host.

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