Ticks: Threat or Menace?

Anybody who follows the news out of Lunenburg County has no doubt heard about the travails of Marni Gent and her efforts to publicize the exceptionally high concentration of Lyme disease infected deer ticks in and around her community on Silver Point Road. For those of you who either don’t live in these parts, or are too poor to pay attention, we’ll try to bring you up to speed.

Diana and I first learned of the Lyme risk in and around the Town of Lunenburg over two years ago during a routine visit to our vet, Dr. Barry Falkenham at Seaside Animal Hospital. At that time he told us that pretty much any deer tick found inside of Lunenburg, and east through Garden Lots, Heckman’s Island, Blue Rocks, and the Stonehursts could be expected to be Lyme positive. This really didn’t surprise us considering the size of the deer herd that even back then was living within the inhabited zone that made them immune to any sort of hunting activity.

This past summer, mostly thanks to Marni Gent, there has been an increasing awareness of the issue leading to a recent public meeting on the subject hosted by the Town of Lunenburg and involving representatives of the Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources.

In the middle of it all, on 8 July 2008, the Halifax Chronicle Herald published an article that, with no offense intended to the reporter who wrote it, presented information on ticks and Lyme disease that is so incredibly inaccurate it defies belief considering the credentials of the sources cited. We are quoting the article in its entirety here since it is no longer accessible for free on the Halifax Herald website. Certain passages have been highlighted in red as we single them out as deserving of further attention.


Tick talk Experts argue smothering versus pulling
South Shore Bureau
Chronicle Herald, Tue. Jul 8 – 5:33 AM

The province is giving out wrong information on how to get ticks off your body, says a Halifax-based parasitologist. The Department of Health Protection and Promotion puts out a brochure that says to grasp the tick with tweezers and gently pull it straight out. Edith Angelopoulos cringed when she read that piece of advice. “You cannot pull them out,” she said. The only way to get them off is to cut off their air supply. Ms. Angelopoulos taught parasitology at Dalhousie University for 30 years. She said ticks have a proboscis that digs into the skin so that it can attach itself. The tick also has spines pointed back from its body and its head has little pumps that pump an anti-coagulant into its host. “You start to pull it out and you can’t pull it out because of the spines, so its head usually breaks off. Its head stays in and keeps contracting, pumping that anti-coagulant.” The leftover head can cause nasty health problems for the host, including tumours, growths and infections, she said. The host’s body may react to the foreign body and build a defence around it. “I saw a person who had a tumour removed one year after the tick had been pulled out.” There is only one proper way to get rid of a tick. “You need to stop it from getting air. You find a tick and all you need to do is to cover the area thoroughly with a greasy substance like butter or lard or Vaseline.” That plugs the holes through which the tick breathes, it contracts the tiny spines and you can easily pull the tick off. Once the tick’s head has broken off, Ms. Angelopoulos said the only way to remove it is with microsurgery. Health promotion spokesman Brett Loney said the province stands by the advice it is giving out. “We’ve told people to pull them off with tweezers. That’s what we’ve always told people to do,” and he said that’s based on advice from the medical community, the medical health officer, Department of Natural Resources insect specialists and the Public Health Agency of Canada. The agency’s national microbiology lab in Winnipeg tests the ticks for Lyme disease. Robbin Lindsay is the agency’s specialist in ticks and Lyme disease. He is away and could not be reached for comment Monday but he did give a media interview last week. Agency spokeswoman Jana Lerner said he said “use tweezers to carefully grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull slowly upward, avoiding twisting or crushing the tick.” He also said not to smother the tick, she said. “Absolutely wrong,” Ms. Angelopoulpos said. “I stand by what I said.” She said the only other alternative to applying a greasy substance is to wait until the tick has had its fill of blood, and it will simply drop off, but she said that could take some time. Ticks first came to Nova Scotia in the 1940s, Ms. Angelopoulos said, when a farmer imported sheep into Yarmouth. By the 1980s, ticks were discovered in Kejimkujik National Park. Today, they are across the province. “And the biggest carriers are dogs.” Marni Gent’s two dogs have Lyme disease. They contracted it near their home in Garden Lots. Ms. Gent put banners up on Canada Day on the old schoolhouse she and her husband own proclaiming the tiny community just outside Lunenburg as ground zero for Lyme disease. Five of the 12 confirmed cases of Lyme disease in Nova Scotia are in Garden Lots. The banners were vandalized overnight July 1 and Ms. Gent thinks it’s because someone was upset by the use of the term “ground zero”. She put the signs back up but discovered Saturday morning that someone had spray-painted obscene images over them. RCMP Cpl. Rob Lewis said police are investigating the vandalism. Ms. Gent said she is disturbed someone would deface the banners. She said she will change “ground zero” to “hot spot” and repair the rest of the banner with green and white paint. The sign is staying, and she hopes the attention given to the vandalism won’t detract from her true concern – the prevalence of Lyme disease-carrying ticks in her community.

Diana and I spend a lot of time in the woods, often with our dogs. Ticks are a common issue. Contrary to the information contained in the article in question, they CAN be easily and quickly removed with ALMOST ZERO risk of breaking off the head or mouth parts. We do it all the time, as do vets when they find ticks on pets during an examination.

We will leave it up to our readers to decide for themselves why a parasitologist who taught the subject at Dalhousie University for 30 years apparently knows little to nothing about ticks and their anatomy, but here is the truth as it applies to the claims made in the article

  1. Yes, a tick can be removed by coating it in a substance like baby oil or Vaseline causing it to release on its own but we have personally seen ticks expire from suffocation WITHOUT releasing on several occasions. In addition, the possible side effects of placing protracted stress on a parasite that is basically a tiny cesspool with an open pipeline into the bloodstream of you or someone that matters to you have yet to be identified.
  2. Grasping a tick with tweezers and pulling it straight off the host’s skin will remove a small chunk of flesh if done carefully but runs the serious risk of breaking off the head, and the lesion left behind after even a successful removal of this type can easily become infected, particularly if you’re in the field when the procedure is performed. This technique also exposes the risk of squeezing the tick’s body like it was a miniature, disgusting tube of toothpaste – “… a tiny cesspool with an open pipeline into the bloodstream…“, remember?
  3. The claim by Ms. Angelopoulos that, “Once the tick’s head has broken off … the only way to remove it is with microsurgery,” is patently ridiculous. It’s effectively a complicated splinter and can be dealt with as such.
  4. Ms. Angelopoulos is further credited with having provided the advice that, “‘… the only other alternative to applying a greasy substance is to wait until the tick has had its fill of blood, and it will simply drop off,’ but she said that could take some time.” While it is true that a tick must detach itself to get on with life, simply waiting it out is not much of an option for people and their pets. First, left alone it can take days for a tick to remove itself after which there’s a tick at large in your house, your bed, your child’s bed, you get the idea. Second, and more importantly, research results vary but the generally held wisdom is that a tick infected with Lyme disease needs to be attached for between 24 and 36 hours to infect its host. At the very least it can safely be asserted that every moment a tick is attached increases the likelihood that the host will be infected by some micro-organism that the tick is carrying. While we’re sure that Ms. Angelopoulos wasn’t advocating letting ticks remove themselves as a viable option for those afflicted, identifying it as the “only other alternative” to suffocation is, in our experience and opinion, complete and utter tripe.
  5. A tick’s mouth parts will release if you work WITH them instead of AGAINST them. Unlike most blood sucking invertebrates, a tick isn’t equipped to eat and run. That means it has to remain attached to its host quite a spell before it has ingested a sufficient blood meal during which time it will be at risk of being dislodged as the host goes about its business. To accomplish this, the tick’s mouth parts are equipped with backward pointing projections that are designed to rise and grip the wound channel made during the bite process if any traction is applied that might pull it out (see photo of a tick’s magnified proboscis at right). Correctly gripping the tick’s head with a small pair of curved forceps or with a “Tick Twister“, available at the Bridgewater Sur-Gain, Seaside Animal Hospital, and soon from us here at Golden Mountain Dog Solutions, then ROTATING the tick will prevent the spines from gripping and permit the tick to be removed without pulling.
  6. Contrary to what Ms. Angelopoulos says in the article, the biggest carriers of ticks are not dogs. For this to be true, Nova Scotia would have to be overrun with vast packs of them. Dogs can come back from walks in the field with ticks on them of course, but in actuality, as it progesses through its life cycle, the deer tick finds its hosts among the wild (also much larger and more accessible) populations of field mice, birds, and of course white tailed deer.


  1. Here’s a comment. Great advice =) Thanks


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