Nova Scotia

'Every season is tick season': Experts warn of winter Lyme disease risk

Despite freezing temperatures, experts say blacklegged ticks are now active in Nova Scotia all year long.

People have 'let their guard down' and aren't checking for ticks as weather cools, says zoologist

Laurenne Schiller now keeps her collie Cousteau on tick medication all year long. She says while dog owners in Nova Scotia are aware of the year-long risk of ticks, many in the general public are not. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

Laurenne Schiller loves taking her dog Cousteau for walks along Halifax trails as the weather cools.

But even after the first dusting of snow this week, each walk finishes with a head-to-toe check for blacklegged ticks on her and her collie.

"Talking to other dog owners, people have said they will pick 12 or 15 [ticks] off their dog in an hour-long walk on the trails here," she said.

Schiller now keeps her furry companion on tick medication year-round.

Bit while Christmas tree shopping

Experts say there is a common misconception that you can't get Lyme disease in the winter because people believe ticks are no longer active.

"We have this false sense that once it's getting cold, that we're safe. But that's no longer the case," said Donna Lugar, the Nova Scotia representative for the advocacy group the Canadian Lyme Disease Foundation.

Donna Lugar, who heads up the Nova Scotia chapter of CanLyme, says she knows of people who were bitten and infected with Lyme disease in the winter. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

"Even after snow, even after a cold snap, if the temperature does go up, [blacklegged ticks] can be active," she said. 

Lugar, who has Lyme disease, said she is being contacted increasingly by people who've contracted the disease in the middle of winter.

"A few years ago, someone was bit while they were in a Christmas tree farm lot picking out their Christmas tree. They ended up being quite ill," she said.

Symptoms similar to flu

Lugar said the risk of misdiagnosis is also greater in the winter because it's flu season.

Since the symptoms of Lyme disease can appear flu-like, people might think they've caught influenza when they've been bitten by a tick that carries Lyme disease, she said.

Black-legged ticks submitted for examination with the Nova Scotia Museum. ( Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

According to the province's health department, the number of reported cases of Lyme disease has been increasing since the first case was reported in 2002. In 2015 there were 247 cases, and in 2016 there were 326.

Andrew Hebda, a zoologist at the Nova Scotia Museum, said he's receiving about 150 ticks every week from medical offices across the province for identification.

That's more ticks this time of year than he was sent during what is known as the peak season in June and July.

He said more than half the ticks he's seeing now have fed or completely fed, which means they were likely on the person for more than 24 hours.

Andrew Hebda, zoology curator at the Nova Scotia Museum, examines a blacklegged tick under the microscope to determine how long it would have been on a person. (Patrick Callaghan/CBC)

"People have let their guard down and haven't been doing the tick checks as diligently," he said.

While the general rule is that ticks are active above 4 C, Hebda said there can be warmer pockets of ground that will allow ticks to be active even in cooler temperatures.

"They're active all winter," he said. "We've got ticks being brought in every month of the year."

"Every season is tick season."


Marina von Stackelberg is a senior reporter at CBC's Parliamentary Bureau in Ottawa. She previously worked as a reporter and host in Winnipeg, with earlier stints in Halifax and Sudbury. Her stories regularly appear across the country on CBC Radio and CBC News Network. Connect with her by email at or on social media @CBCMarina.