New Whitetail Deer Study Makes Unfortunate Discovery About Tick-Related Diseases

by Caitlin Berard
(Photo by Vicki Jauron, Babylon and Beyond Photography via Getty Images)

Every outdoorsman knows that protecting against ticks is just as important as keeping mosquitos at bay. Though not all types of ticks spread disease, the ones that do can cause devastation with a single bite. Those responsible for the vast majority of tick-borne diseases are the blacklegged tick (more commonly known as the deer tick).

As its name suggests, blacklegged ticks rely heavily on whitetail deer for distribution as well as reproduction. And unfortunately, these ticks could become a much greater problem, both for adventurers and those who simply enjoy spending time in the backyard.

In a recent study out of Maryland, scientists determined that the growing population of whitetail deer in urban and suburban settings has also caused an increase in ticks and tick-borne illnesses. The study pointed to both the blacklegged tick and its relative, the lone star tick.

“Your yard is their home, and if you’re concerned about ticks or tick management, or potentially damage done, then you need to recognize that this is where they actually choose to live and either work with them or manage against them,” Jennifer Mullinax, the study’s lead researcher, told UPI.

Over the course of the study, researchers outfitted 51 whitetail deer with GPS tracking devices. They then observed the movements of the deer to track the movements of the ticks. Unfortunately, they found that the majority of the deer gravitated to residential areas, sleeping within yards of homes.

“Most people get Lyme disease from the ticks in their yard. There are a lot of different methods to control ticks,” Mullinax explained. “For the county agencies and state agencies, it’s really pointing them to make some adjustments in managing the deer population.”

Scientists and Doctors Work to Reduce Tick-Borne Disease Spread by Whitetail Deer

Obviously, it’s not whitetail deer’s fault that ticks prefer them as a means of transportation. The threat of Lyme disease, however, cannot be denied.

A notoriously difficult-to-diagnose bacterial infection, Lyme disease can be fatal if left untreated. Anaplasmosis, the second most common tick-borne illness, is no friendlier.

One way to keep the spread of these diseases under control is to control the number of deer through culling operations. “Sharpshooting tactics and permissions … would likely increase the effectiveness of population reduction programs,” the study reads.

In the meantime, Dr. Marc Siegel, a clinical professor of medicine at NYU recommends taking protective action. Keep your grass cut short, spray your yard for ticks, use tick repellent, and always check your body and clothes thoroughly after spending time outdoors.

“I tell them to look for bumps on their scalp and in their pubic area,” Siegel said. “I tell them that if you feel fatigued, it may not be COVID — it may be Lyme.”

“I’m in the category of over-treaters,” he continued. “But this study makes me not look bad, because it’s basically saying these things are going out of control. We expect to see a lot more disease.”