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Garden Plot: Tackling ticks and fighting fleas

Saturday - 6/7/2014, 11:00am  ET

WASHINGTON - It's time to tackle ticks (and fight fleas)

Warning: Any tick can make you sick

You may have heard WTOP's own Darci Marchese reporting about her all-too-personal experience with a tick bite recently. She was relieved to learn that her little blood sucker, a lone star tick, isn't the species known to carry Lyme disease.

But, and this is a big but, the lone star tick is a vector for at least five other tick-borne ailments, including one called STARI that closely mimics the symptoms of Lyme disease and the potentially-deadly Rocky Mountain spotted fever.

If you discover an attached tick, don't panic, but do remove it very carefully and as quickly as possible. It takes quite a few hours -- some medical experts say a full day -- for a tick to begin transmitting any nasties to you after it latches on. But, prompt removal is important.

If the tick was firmly attached to you, don't squash it. Drop it into a jar and save it for later examination by specialists if you begin to develop a rash, fever, weakness or other symptoms. But if it was just crawling on you, feel free to squash it.

Treating your pets can make your lawn free of fleas

Tim in Fredericksburg, who says that "WTOP is the only station on my car radio," writes: "What would be the best treatment to use on our lawn to prevent fleas and ticks? We use Advantage on our dogs."

Unlike ticks, fleas can routinely be picked up on a lawn, Tim. But prevention of this ankle biting nightmare comes from treating the pets and not the lawn.

The prescription strength once-a-month spot treatments, like your Advantage or Frontline, obtained from a licensed vet, are chemicals. But I feel that they're an extremely rational, common-sense pest control solution for fleas. Instead of being flea carriers, your treated pets become living flea traps because fleas are naturally attracted to pets. They'll seek out your dogs or cats, and be quickly killed as soon as they land.

Warning: Don't use cheap knock-off products. Some of them can be very toxic to cats, even if the cat just lives with a treated dog, and aren't that great for the dog's long-term health either. Spring for the real thing, and keep your pets and your family safe.

No ticks on the lawn, but watch out for those weeds

In our last thrilling episode, Tim in Fredericksburg also wanted to know what he could treat his lawn with to prevent ticks. The answer is a lawnmower, Tim.

Ticks avoid correctly cut lawns, especially lawns in full sun. Ticks dehydrate very easily, so they are most often found lurking in damp and shady areas of weeds and brush, seeking out plants that are a foot or more high to climb so that they can easily latch onto their prey.

To keep ticks out of your landscape naturally, keep weedy areas whacked or mowed, prune back overgrown plants to improve sun and airflow, and only water deeply but infrequently. Allowing your lawn and other plants to dry out completely between waterings is good for the plants, but bad for ticks.

Permethrin clothing sprays make you tick-proof

Jeff in McLean writes that he has heard me talk about permethrin for tick control and would like some details. My pleasure, Jeff!

Permethrin is a chemical pesticide. Specifically, it's a synthetic version of the famous botanical pesticide pyrethrum, which is made from crushed chrysanthemum flowers. And no, I don't normally approve of any kind of chemical pesticide, but this is a situation where I make the rare exception.

Ticks are a real threat to human and pet health. Permethrin is remarkably effective against ticks, and the two ways I use it to prevent and/or kill ticks are very safe.

The first is as a clothing-based repellant. Treating a set of gardening or hiking clothes with a .5 percent permethrin spray (that's a mere 1/2 percent concentration) totally prevents ticks from getting on you. And you're not applying anything to your skin. You can buy the sprays under several brand names (like Duranon and Permanone) in stores that carry hunting or camping gear. Avoid products that contain DEET or other active ingredients; all you need is that .5 percent permethrin.

You can also buy clothing that's been professionally treated directly from Insect Shield or retailers that carry the brand. I always wear their treated socks when I go walking in the woods or brush and I have pants and shirts I'll also wear if I have to go into a known tick-infested area.

Warning: Don't rely on DEET to protect you against ticks. Although the chemical repellant DEET is effective against mosquitoes, permethrin-treated clothing is much more effective against ticks. Not to mention that you're not slathering chemicals on your skin.

Use tubes to trap your ticks

Many people fear the so-called deer ticks that carry the bacterium that can cause Lyme disease in humans and household pets. But the truth is that many of the ticks that are actually carrying Lyme disease, also known as hard or black legged ticks, have never seen a deer. But every single tick that is infected has spent part of its life cycle feeding on field mice.

Luckily, this direct connection with mice makes a product known as Tick Tubes an especially ingenious way to keep your land tick-free.

Tick Tubes are simple cardboard tubes filled with cotton balls that have been treated with permethrin. That's a synthetic version of the organic pesticide made from crushed chrysanthemum flowers. And again, it's the most effective control against ticks.

The mice take the cotton balls back to their nests, where the permethrin kills any ticks that come into the nest all season long. The tubes have proven to be remarkably effective at making landscapes tick free -- including mine. I spread a fresh set of tubes every spring, and the only time I found a tick on myself was after wandering through some brush on an unusually warm day in February a few years back. And yes, I spread the tubes the next morning.

Editor's Note: Biologist Kevin Rose of Virginia's Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF)says tick tubes are currently illegal in the state of Virginia because such use requires a permit and no permits have been issued to date.

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