Why ticks are so dangerous to humans and pets — Isabel’s student essay

Why Ticks Are So Dangerous To Humans And Pets?

Since I was around nine years old, I have always been told that I have an “irrational” fear of ticks. It all started one day on a drive to school: my younger brother had a book that listed some of the world’s deadliest creatures. In the “insect” section of the book, ticks were listed as one of the most deadly creatures. Beyond terrified, I started crying in the car when I read that there was a possibility that a blood-sucking insect capable of passing on diseases could be living on me or my two dogs right as we spoke. I began to cry, and my mother had to pull over the car to calm me down. I vividly remember her telling me that my fear was irrational, ticks barely exist in Arizona, and even if there was an infestation in our yard, it is almost impossible for them to ever latch onto humans.  

However, now looking back, was there really merit to my fear? It seems so, considering the fact that ticks pose a much larger threat to humans and pets than most like to believe. Although commonly perceived as uncommon and easily treatable, tick-borne illnesses can be fatal and cause irreversible effects to both humans and pets. By conducting an in-depth analysis of Lyme disease, it will become clear that the commonality of the disease does not necessarily equate to safety or straightforward treatment for any patient.

Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified a total of 15 tick-related diseases existing in the United States. Generally speaking, tick populations tend to thrive in areas with higher elevation, but can also be found in urban areas as well. A report to the CDC in 2018 employs a graphic that details that most tick-borne diseases are common in the midwest, northeast, and eastern regions of the United States. Although still present, tick-borne diseases are less common in the Rocky Mountains region, central, western, and southern regions of the United States. 

Close-up of Tick attached next to an Australian Shepherd's eye

Among one of the most common and widely-recognized tick-borne diseases is Lyme disease. The United States Environmental Protection Agency details that, “approximately 20,000–30,000 confirmed cases of Lyme disease per year have been reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.” Over 96% of Lyme disease cases reported to the CDC originate from the upper midwest and northeast. Affecting both humans and animals, if left untreated, Lyme disease can cause issues spanning from cognitive defects, Lyme arthritis, and heart irregularities. Often, people will experience a handful of symptoms that may be an early indication of a Lyme disease infection. These symptoms can include the development of a red rash often in the shape of a bull’s eye target, fever, headache, and muscle pains according to an article by Medline Plus. Unfortunately, for pets, it is often much more difficult for owners to detect symptoms. In some cases, there may be no present symptoms hinting that a pet may be suffering from Lyme disease. Some of these symptoms can be similar to humans and include fever, joint pain, and loss of appetite. Because Lyme disease is sometimes difficult to identify in pets, it is nearly impossible to estimate how many animals contract Lyme disease annually.

tick crawling on human hand

As briefly explained earlier, despite the fact that Lyme disease tends to be the most common tick-borne illness, it can be fatal when left untreated. Experts recommend visiting a doctor when symptoms of Lyme disease are present, because if left untreated, “Lyme disease can spread to other parts of your body for several months to years after infection, causing arthritis and nervous system problems,” Mayo Clinic explains. Untreated Lyme disease can affect humans in the varying time period of weeks, months, or years after the initial infection.

Once the disease reaches this state, it can transform into post-treatment Lyme disease (PTLD) or chronic Lyme disease (CLD). Although researchers are unsure of exactly how many people may be suffering from PTLD or CLD, the CDC estimates that the number can range from 10-20% of those diagnosed with Lyme disease. Shockingly enough, medical experts are still unsure as to how PTLD develops in a patient. The CDC predicts, “Some experts believe that Borrelia burgdorferi [Lyme disease spirochete] can trigger an ‘auto-immune’ response causing symptoms that last well after the infection itself is gone.” As of now, there is no known cure to PTLD, and an estimated 12% of those diagnosed with Lyme disease never recover, a 2012 survey concludes. Lyme disease is rarely associated as a direct cause of death; however, in 2013, the CDC reported 3 instances in which patients died due to sudden cardiac issues catalyzed by Lyme disease.  

When it comes to pets, dogs, cats, horses, and some cattle are most likely to contract Lyme disease. Out of these pets, Lyme disease is most commonly seen in dogs. An article by Washington State University describes that, “About 75% of dogs living in endemic regions are exposed to infected ticks, but only a small percentage of exposed dogs develop signs of disease.” As mentioned earlier, Lyme disease tends to be much less prominent in animals due to the fact that a handful of those infected tend to not exhibit symptoms. In addition, “Over 90% of infected humans will show clinical signs of Lyme disease…

Unlike their human owners, clinical signs of Lyme disease are observed only in approximately 5-15% of infected canine cases,” veterinarian Heather Norton-Bower details. Similar to humans, when left untreated, Lyme disease may become fatal for pets infected as well. Untreated Lyme disease can damage a pet’s nervous system, heart, and kidneys. Dogs with chronic Lyme disease have a higher potential to develop Lyme nephritis: an effect of Lyme disease that may lead to kidney failure.

Despite some of the long-term consequences, Lyme disease is still extremely treatable when detected in a timely manner. Antibiotics tend to be very effective and lead patients towards a speedy recovery. 

However, that does not disregard the fact that Lyme disease can be deadly when not treated correctly. Disregarding symptoms can lead to irreversible damage to the body, and potentially cause death. This disease is not one that should be taken lightly. Although many are unaware of some of the true consequences, it is crucial that any person experiencing these symptoms express this concern to their doctor. Untreated Lyme disease can last a lifetime.      

Although now I can confidently attest that my obsessive fear over ticks was far from healthy, there was more validity to my claim than I was initially told. 


Author: Isabel Behrendt

University of Arizona

Student Scholarships

Every year Thrive Pest Control hosts an essay contest and the reward is a 1-year scholarship at a 4-year university in the United States. This blog post is one of those scholarships.