PORTLAND, MAINE — New England residents are already plucking ticks off pets thanks to a warm winter that's going to extend the season for the blood-sucking parasites.
The tick season got underway at least a month earlier than usual, and people should take precautions to protect themselves and their pets from diseases spread by ticks, said Chuck Lubelczyk, field biologist with Maine Medical Center Research Institute.
Checking for ticks needs to become routine: "You've got to brush your teeth and floss. You've also got to put on repellent and do your tick check," he said.
Extreme cold temperatures won't necessarily kill ticks but can delay their appearance in large numbers. But the winter that just ended was the hottest on U.S. record.
In New England, the temperature from December through February was the warmest on record in Caribou, Maine; Concord, New Hampshire; and Providence, Rhode Island. It was the second-warmest in Boston; Hartford, Connecticut; and Portland, Maine.
Maine already has recorded 40 cases of Lyme disease since the start of the new year, underscoring that ticks are becoming a year-round problem in the region, especially when the winters are warmer than usual, said Dr. Siiri Bennett, Maine state epidemiologist.
The season begins in earnest when the snow melts and temperatures top 40 degrees. The bulk of the thousands of Lyme disease cases are reported in summer and fall.
Though the season is off to an early start, that doesn't necessarily mean there will be a bumper crop of ticks. In fact, it's difficult to predict how the winter may have affected ticks, said Trish Hanson, an entomologist with the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.
A dry spring could be bad for ticks, killing them, said Beth Daly, chief of the bureau of infectious disease control for the New Hampshire Health and Human Services Department.
Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont are among 17 states with high-risk counties for Lyme disease, which causes fatigue and sometimes a telltale rash that looks like a bull's-eye on the tick bite. Most people recover with antibiotics but the infection can cause arthritis and other problems if left untreated.
Ticks also carry anaplasma, a microorganism that can be transmitted to humans and pets, and babesiosis, a parasite that affects humans, he said. Also of concern is a rare virus, Powassan, which causes encephalitis; Maine has recorded only two cases, one of them fatal.
Winter ticks, sometimes known as moose ticks, also survived in large numbers over the winter, and are expected to cause high losses of moose calves this month, said Lee Kantar, the state's moose biologist. Those ticks don't affect people or pets, he said.
Because of warming winters, veterinarians have started encouraging pet owners to treat their dogs for ticks year-round everywhere except far northern regions in New England.
Pet owners are already removing ticks, and pets often bring ticks inside homes.
"There's no question that they're out there and seem to be as bad, if not worse, than ever," said Thomas Netland, a veterinarian at the Cumberland Animal Clinic in Maine.