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Can That Tick Carry Lyme Disease? This Website Can Help

Jessica Bolser
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service - Midwest
American dog tick

Experts have predicted a higher than usual number of ticks this year. That could mean increased risk of Lyme disease, but not all ticks carry the infection. If you’ve found a tick recently, the University of Rhode Island has an easy way to identify it, and determine whether it might be dangerous. 

Tom Mather tracks tick populations nationwide from his lab at the University of Rhode Island.

Through his website, TickEncounter.org, anyone can submit a photo and descriptions of ticks they find. His team will identify the tick and send suggestions about whether you're at risk for a tick-borne illness.

Mather's team also uses these submissions to monitor tick populations, and predict where the risk of Lyme disease is highest.

This summer, Mather said, he’s seeing a lot of dog ticks.

“They have been much higher this year than in previous years,” Mather said. “So I think that the understanding was that that would increase the risk for Lyme disease. But American dog ticks don’t transmit that germ.”

It’s deer ticks, not dog ticks, that carry Lyme disease. They’re also known as black-legged ticks.

“Our findings so far in Rhode Island have been that the nymphal stage black-legged ticks, the ones that are dangerous for Lyme disease, are about normal for this time of year,” Mather explained.

But don’t stop checking yourself for ticks just yet. The risk of getting Lyme disease also depends on what percentage of deer ticks are infected with the disease. Mather says the infection rate might be high this year because of what the young ticks have been feeding on: rodents. 

“In Rhode Island we’ve done studies to show that over 70 percent of the mice are carrying the germs that can cause people to be sick from black-legged ticks,” Mather said.

So, the real question is whether those ticks have been hanging out more on mice or other animals. 

“If they feed on deer, they just get a blood meal, no infection,” Mather said. “If they feed on mice or chipmunks, they get a blood meal and infection.”

According to Mather, he’ll be able to pin down the infection rate later this summer, by testing ticks his team is now collecting.

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.