Dry Weather Has Up Side as Pest Reducer

As drought gets a grip on most of Georgia, it also gets a death grip on fleas, says a University of Georgia scientist.

"Immature fleas are very sensitive to dehydration," said Beverly Sparks, a UGA Extension Service entomologist. "They can't withstand extended periods of high heat and low humidity. When we have very dry weather, the immature fleas (living outside) die. Of course, those fleas that are reproducing inside do quite well."

While fleas are a frequent summer annoyance, ticks can be dangerous. And the dry weather doesn't seem to deter them. The two main threats from ticks are Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

Ticks Transmit Diseases

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Photo: Scott Bauer, USDA-ARS
Adult deer tick (Ixodes scapularis)

"The primary tick that carries Lyme disease is the black-legged tick (Ixodes scapularis), often called the deer tick," Sparks said.

The cause of Lyme disease is a bacteria, Borrelia burgdorferi.

"The initial sign of infection is a ring-like swollen rash at the site of the bite three to 22 days following the bite of the infected tick," she said. "The rash is often accompanied by flu-like symptoms."

Early Lyme disease symptoms include fatigue, chills and fever, headache, muscle and joint pain and swollen lymph nodes. The disease can have chronic symptoms weeks and even years later, including arthritis and nervous system abnormalities.

Spotted Fever More Acute

Rocky Mountain spotted fever is a more acute and immediately dangerous disease, though the tick bite itself is less notable.

Also caused by a bacteria-like organism, Rickettsia ricketsii, it shows up in a sudden onset of moderate to high fever, which can last for two or three weeks. Other symptoms are severe headache, fatigue, deep muscle pain, chills and a rash that usually begins on the legs or arms and can spread quickly to the rest of the body. The disease can lead to kidney failure and death.

If you suspect Lyme disease or Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Sparks said, see a doctor quickly. Early treatment is important to complete recovery from either disease.

Remove Ticks Carefully

Whether you spot a tick on a human or a pet, remove it carefully.

"Remove imbedded ticks with forceps, or with cloth or paper wrapped around the tick as near to the point of attachment as possible," Sparks said. "Use a steady, firm pull to remove the tick. And apply a disinfectant to the site of the bite."

The best way to avoid fleas and ticks is to use a repellant.

"Repellents containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-3-methylbenzamide) are the most effective," Sparks said. "The repellent can be applied to exposed skin and will repel ticks for several hours."

Permanone, which contains permethrin, can be applied to clothing and is an effective repellent, too. But don't apply Permanone to the skin.

To keep fleas and ticks away from your house, you must be diligent.

Kill Ticks, Fleas Where They Are

"Successful flea control programs include treatment of the pet and the environments where that animal lives," Sparks said. "You must get rid of fleas on the pet, and then treat the areas where fleas may be breeding."

Be sure to treat the pet's sleeping and feeding areas, whether indoors or out.

"Make sure that the pesticide you select is labeled for use indoors when treating the fleas inside," Sparks said.

In a desperate attempt to control fleas and ticks, many pet owners shave their pets in summer. "It may make it easier to find them," Sparks said. "But it won't prevent an infestation."

Faith Peppers is the director of public affairs with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.