Do Pets Put Owners at Risk for Lyme Disease or Do They Improve Owners’ Tick Prevention Habits?

Do Pets Put Owners at Risk for Lyme Disease or Do They Improve Owners’ Tick Prevention Habits?

By Molly Wight, Master of Public Health candidate, and Bieneke Bron DVM, PhD, postdoctoral researcher, Midwest Center of Excellence for Vector-Borne Diseases, University of Wisconsin-Madison

Spring has sprung, and with it, tick season has arrived. UW-Madison researchers have two online research studies on tick prevention now open to participants, including a new study specifically for pet owners.

The Tick App is an interactive mobile phone study where users can share their daily outdoor activities, explain tick prevention methods, and report tick encounters. Additionally, if users find a tick, they can submit a picture of the tick through the app for identification.

Already this spring, 69 Tick App users have reported tick encounters and sent pictures through the Tick App. All of the ticks submitted so far have been adult blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis). These ticks are better known as deer ticks, and are responsible for many tick-borne diseases in Wisconsin, including Lyme disease. More than half of the ticks we’ve seen thus far came from a dog or cat. About half of those were attached to a dog or cat, and the other half were crawling in the fur. These crawling ticks could go on to bite the pet or household members.

In general, dog and cat owners are 1.5-2 times more likely to find a tick crawling on themselves than individuals who don’t have pets (Jones et al. 2018). People living with pets were also 1.5 times more likely to find a tick attached to themselves. This suggests that pet owners are at greater risk for tick-borne diseases.

However, despite numerous studies, no link has been established between pet ownership and getting a tick-borne disease. This could be because we need more studies and information, or pet owners may be better at noticing ticks and preventing bites because they are carefully looking after their pets.

Researchers at UW-Madison have been using the Tick App to understand human and tick interactions since 2017. Over 50 percent of Tick App users thus far had pets, and they were more likely to use tick prevention methods. Because of that, the Tick App launched an online spin-off study this year for pet owners to better understand the role of pets in tick prevention.

Participants are asked to complete two online, 5- to 10-minute surveys – the first upon enrollment, and the
second later this summer. Each survey asks about participants’ pets and veterinarian visits, and also asks participants to share their attitudes, knowledge and behaviors around ticks. This information will help us determine whether acquiring a pet changes owners’ tick prevention habits.

To participate in this study, pet owners must be at least 18 years old and own a dog or cat. Pet owners can enroll for the study through bit.ly/PetsAndTicks.

The Tick App can be downloaded from Google Play or the App Store. Our website, https://thetickapp.org, provides flyers and more information about the app and the pet study. For questions about the pet study, please email tickteam@wisc.edu, and for questions about the Tick App, please email tickapp@wisc.edu.



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