Climate change makes ticks a year-round pest in Michigan

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Blacklegged ticks, also known as deer ticks, can appear with an orange-red or dark brown body. Courtesy of Michelle Volk.

Michigan’s landscape is diverse, ranging from vast forests to urban areas, providing habitats for various wildlife, including ticks. These tiny arachnids have long been a concern for public health due to their ability to transmit diseases like Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and babesiosis. However, as climate change has altered environmental conditions, which transform the patterns of tick activity.

“We’ve been pulling them off of dogs year-round,” said Karina MacIntosh, owner of Classy Canine, a pet grooming company in East Lansing. “People don’t realize it just takes one or two warm days.”

Traditionally, ticks in Michigan have been most active during the warmer months, typically from late spring to early fall. However, with rising temperatures and shifting precipitation patterns associated with climate change, the dynamics of tick populations are evolving. Warmer winters and earlier springs have led to extended periods of activity for ticks, expanding their habitat range and increasing numbers.

“Michigan never really got a break,” said Jen Summers, a veterinary technician at Goodison Veterinary Center. Vets across the state have been urging dog owners to use preventative medicines and check for ticks after outdoor recreation, regardless of the time of year.

Michelle Volk, a Ph.D. student at Michigan State University, is currently studying the genetic diversity of black-legged ticks and tick-borne pathogens in Michigan. In 2020, she began creating TikToks on her work and has since amassed over a million views on her account @ticks_of_tiktok.

“People are surprisingly interested in ticks, and I enjoy science communication. But there’s a big education and outreach aspect to it,” Volk said. “The more I was posting TikToks about ticks and tick prevention, the clearer it became that a lot of the public doesn’t know a lot or maybe only a couple things depending on where they grew up.”

Black-legged ticks, which most often carry infectious diseases, have been established in over 35 counties throughout the state and reported in just as many. According to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, only two counties, Crawford and Roscommon, remain without a confirmed risk for Lyme disease. Twenty years ago, black-legged ticks were only known to be in five counties.

“Even in the four years I’ve been here, we’ve found ticks in four new counties, which is great for us as researchers, not so great for the people of Michigan,” Volk said. 

Volk’s most popular video, with 1.1 million views, points out how ticks may appear in their natural state, as tiny dots clinging to the tops of grasses. Other videos showcase how researchers collect tick samples by dragging cloth through the woods.

“Some people think it’s gross. Some people like to hear about cool science,” she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends knowing where to expect ticks before treading off-trail, using EPA-registered insect repellants, wearing full-coverage clothing and always checking your body after coming indoors.

“Check your crevices,” Volk said.

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