P.E.I. tick study points to risk of Lyme disease on the Island

The ticks that can transmit Lyme disease have arrived on P.E.I., according to a year long study conducted by researchers at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. Islanders are now being advised to conduct daily tick checks if they spend time outdoors.

Of 400 ticks collected, 98 per cent were black legged ticks which can transmit Lyme disease

Mount Allison biology professor Vett Lloyd (left) says the lab will continue to test ticks from Prince Edward Island, at a cost of $20, even though the study is over. (Submitted by Vett Lloyd)

The ticks that can transmit Lyme disease have arrived on P.E.I., according to a year long study conducted by researchers at Mount Allison University in Sackville, N.B. 

"We had well over 400 ticks submitted," said Vett Lloyd, professor of biology at Mount Allison. "They came mostly off pets because we asked Island veterinarians to partner with us but some of them did come off humans."

Dr. Tara McCarthy recommends daily tick checks on dogs. (Nancy Russell/CBC)
We had ticks submitted from all over the Island so there's really no place on the Island where you can't encounter a tick.—Vett Lloyd, Mount Allison University

Lloyd says more than 80 per cent had been picked up on Prince Edward Island, from people who hadn't travelled off the Island.

The vast majority, she said, were the black legged ticks, formerly known as deer ticks, which can transmit Lyme disease.

"It's unfortunate that the black legged ticks used to be called deer ticks, so people think deer ticks must need deer therefore no deer, no ticks," Lloyd said. "But these ticks will take blood from anything with blood and there are no shortage of things with blood on the Island."

The ticks were tested to see if they carried the Lyme disease bacteria.

Removing a tick on a dog can be done with a little plastic instrument supplied by veterinarians. (Getty Images)

"Depending on which batch of ticks, the infection rate was anywhere from eight to 16 per cent," Lloyd said.

The lab also tested blood samples from dogs across the Island. Lloyd said seven were infected with the Lyme disease bacteria and six of those had never left the Island.

"So certainly dogs are picking up Lyme disease on the Island," Lloyd said.

Vett Lloyd says this map shows locations where black legged ticks were found, but only the ticks that came from hosts that hadn't traveled off the island in the 2 weeks prior to finding the tick, so only ticks from P.E.I.. The green dots show each location where a tick was found. Multiple tick returns are shown in red. (Submitted by Vett Lloyd)

Lloyd says ticks were submitted from across P.E.I., with the highest number from the Malpeque and Egmont regions, which also had the highest proportion of infected ticks.

"Which makes sense because the bits of the Island closest to Nova Scotia and the bits of the Island closest to New Brunswick would be the high-risk places because the ticks are brought in primarily on birds flapping over the water," Lloyd said. "They're carrying a tick from a high-density area and dropping it off on the Island."

This adult female was picked up by a P.E.I. dog while in Nova Scotia in 2017. Three ticks were found on the one dog, and while this one was negative, another was positive.

Daily tick checks

Finding the ticks, she says, means Prince Edward Islanders are going to have to take new precautions

"It means for Islanders, if you've been out in the forest, if you've been hiking, even if you've been doing gardening, you have to start doing what unfortunately everyone else is doing," Lloyd said. 

Prof. Vett Lloyd is urging Prince Edward Islanders who spend time outdoors to do daily tick checks on themselves. (Tori Weldon/CBC)

"You're looking for what look like tiny poppy seed-like, freckle-like spots, but freckles with legs and if you see one of those, you get it off of you and then get it in for testing."

Lloyd says tick checks are now part of life in many parts of North America.

"In the United States now it's just routine, you brush your teeth, you do a tick check, you put the kids in the bath tub, you poke through their hair and look for ticks," Lloyd said.

Vett Lloyd says this map shows the locations of ticks that tested positive for the Lyme disease bacteria, again only those acquired on the Island. (Submitted by Vett Lloyd)

Dr. Heather Morrison, chief public health officer for P.E.I., was interested to hear the results of the Mount Allison tick study.

This is an engorged Ixodes scapularis tick (female) removed from a Summerside dog in November 2016. This tick later tested positive for Borrelia burgdorferi (bacteria which causes Lyme disease). (Submitted by Alexandra Foley-Eby)

"It's always good to have more information," Morrison said. "I think it just reinforces and highlights why the prevention messages are really important and really that's the public health role in Lyme disease, is a lot about prevention."

Morrison says the annual prevention messages about Lyme disease and a letter to clinicians will be coming out in the next couple of weeks.

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Nancy Russell has been a reporter with CBC since 1987, in Whitehorse, Winnipeg, Toronto and Charlottetown. When not on the job, she spends her time on the water or in the gym rowing, or walking her dog.