Pets, Ticks, and Tick-Borne Diseases

Tips and Insights from Veterinarian Dr. Rosslyn Biggs and Entomologist Dr. Justin Talley of Oklahoma State University

Drs. Rosslyn Biggs and Justin Talley are experts in the world of animals and insect-borne disease. They are both part of the Oklahoma State University Extension, conducting research and education programs, and working with communities across the state.

Additional Information

  • Article: Ticks and fleas are a year-round problem for pets (featuring Dr. Biggs)
  • Article: Keep pets safe during the holidays (featuring Dr. Biggs)
  • Video: Should you put a substance or heat on a tick to remove it? (“Myth Bugsters” explainer video with Dr. Justin Talley)
  • Infographic: Can ticks transmit COVID-19? (Infographic by Dr. Talley)

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Transcript of the Interview

Mark McLaren at Insect Shield

So today we're here with Dr. Rosslyn Biggs and Dr. Justin Talley from the University. Sorry, Oklahoma State University, both in the department of Veterinary Medicine, and both you guys are etymologists, I believe, if I'm not mistaken, 

Dr. Biggs

Dr. Talley is an entomologist. I'm the veterinarian. He is with the College of Agriculture and then the Oklahoma State University Extension, we're both with the Extension. So that's where we overlap. 

Mark at Insect Shield

Okay. Great. And I think what I found was an article that featured Dr. Biggs that talked about ticks and pets, and the activity of ticks during certain times of the year. So I want to kind of talk about that as part of part of our interview today.

Thank you both for being here. It's, it's really cool. We've talked to a bunch of people around the country, and I just thought like, you guys kind of in the Midwest, so we haven't focused on that that much. So, what's a little bit of your background? Dr. Biggs, how did how did you get interested in veterinary medicine and wind up at OSU?

Dr. Biggs

Sure. So I am actually a second generation veterinarian, second generation Oklahoma State Veterinarian and we have to make sure we get that right today because we play the other university in Oklahoma Saturday, and so, for all our football fans, you need to need to wear orange and root for the Cowboys on Saturday. [Editor’s note: The Oklahoma State Cowboys advanced to the Big 12 Championship Game by beating the Oklahoma Sooners 37 to 33 on November 27th.]

I graduated right here at Oklahoma State University, both the College of Ag as well as veterinary medicine and I was in a very rural mix practice, saw lots of ticks, a lot of tick borne disease. While I was in practice, I've then moved to the USDA and finished my time there focusing on international exports, where we also worried about ticks too, in both going outbound and inbound with animals and animal products. And then I joined the College of Veterinary Medicine and Oklahoma State Extension a little over two years ago.

Mark at Insect Shield

Great. Nice to know. Dr. Talley, how about you. How'd you wind up in this field?

Dr. Talley

Yes, I grew up on a farm and ranch in Texas. One, several summers, my father as a farmer offset his consulting costs to farm me out to the consultant which was a pest management consultant. And that kind of piqued my interest into entomology and pest management, went to West Texas A&M for both my bachelor's and master's and then received my PhD from Kansas State University in entomology, specifically, veterinary entomology, mainly focusing on large animals, pest management and large animal systems. 

Mark at Insect Shield

Which is a big deal, I think probably in lots of parts of the country people working in that field, and really important, although from our standpoint, sort of as a clothing manufacturer, maybe doesn't get as much attention. But I think I've looked at some of the videos that you guys have put out and you're talking about adult humans as well and their susceptibility.

And today, I think pets are we offer [bug repellent] clothing and gear for pets. So we're trying to broaden people's awareness about that, too. Very nice. So, if we're talking about pets, pretty much we're talking about dogs. I mean, it seems like cats are not as susceptible. What do you say about that? I mean, if you're talking to people about their pets and ticks.

Dr. Biggs

From the veterinarian standpoint, I think it's important to recognize that most animals are actually going to be susceptible to a variety of tick borne diseases. I think you're right, we largely talk about those diseases in dogs. And, but we don't want to forget our cats. I have horses and cattle at my place too and actually had ticks we were getting off the horses last night as we were finishing up chores and so those are definitely a consideration for a variety of animals that people will bring in as pets, cats and dogs, of course, more likely to be in the house with this than the calves, right? 

And so there's a closer interface usually, between dogs and cats, people more readily have them in their homes, on the furniture, in beds with them. And so it's again that exposure increases, I think it's important to recognize that although we do usually think of dogs as being that outdoor animal, right, that the exposure is greater for dogs, and certainly as compared to maybe an indoor only cat, I would find that to be accurate. But we have, we have cats, of course, that are indoor outdoor cats and cats that are exclusively outdoor, and there are a number of tick borne diseases that they're susceptible to.

Mark at Insect Shield

Right, so Dr. Tally I think I looked at some of your videos where you were talking about the different kinds of diseases that pets might be susceptible to. And that's something that we haven't talked about that much in our interviews, but I know that the black legged tick, also called the deer tick, that's the one that carries Lyme. But there are a couple others, I think that that you mentioned like the American Dog Tick, and the Lone Star tick, and these carry kind of their own kinds of insect borne disease, right, we have to watch out for those.

Dr. Talley

Yeah, when we think about ticks, not all ticks are created equal. So when we think about this, you're going to look at these ticks and how they interact with their animal hosts, and their environment. Most of the ticks, including the black legged tick we call multi host ticks. So that means they can, they're gonna, once they get a blood meal, they're gonna fall off that animal to digest that blood meal and then grow, or molt, what we say grow to the next stage. And that's what makes control complicated, because you're not just thinking about the ticks on the animal, you're thinking about the constant exposure of those animals to the tick population and its environment. 

When we think about Lone Star ticks, that's Amblyomma americanum. That's very prevalent throughout the US. It used to be relegated to more of the southeastern parts, but we see it all the way up in Michigan now in some reports. So it's a tick that's expanding, it's a little bit more aggressive in its biting activity more so than our black legged tick. And we're certainly concerned with Ehrlichiosis, both canine Ehrlichiosis and some other things. 

The main thing that we want to be worried about are the American Dog Tick is just some Ehrlichiosis, some Anaplasmosis. Anaplasmosis in dogs is prevalent throughout the US. And so as well as canine Ehrlichiosis and both the American Dog Tick and Lone Star tick are involved with that. The black legged tick is certainly involved in Lyme disease. We don't tend to see as much Lyme disease now here. Because the stages, a tick that's really involved in the transmission is feeding on reptiles down here, like up in the Midwest and upper northeast. And it's feeding on the mouse. It's harboring the pathogen that causes Lyme disease.

Mark at Insect Shield

Right. And so there, there are kind of different areas where you need to watch out for the different kinds of ticks. And you said they're spreading. So this is something that we've heard a lot. You know, our primary audience is kind of up in the, in the Northeast, where you would have thought that's where the name of Lyme disease comes from. But it sounds like even tics are spreading over into Canada now. And they're kind of spreading out from that area. So I don't know, if this has caused a lot of what more interest in your field in terms of like having to be more aware or are spending more time on this? Yeah, what do you think?

Dr. Talley

Yes, certainly, we see expansion of ticks into some areas that we don't traditionally see them a lot. But we also have some ticks that have that we think they're just becoming more active in the sense that like, there's a tick called the winter tick, it's Dermacentor albipictus. And it's been prevalent in Canada for a long time. And it can get on dogs, where we usually see a lot of problems. It's closely related to the American Dog Tick. It's in the same genera. So it's involved in canine Anaplasmosis as well.

And so it's not only that we're seeing the expansion of certain ticks, but maybe the season of these ticks becoming more intense and a little bit longer. Because of just the variable climate that we're in, we tend to see tick populations are expanding because of the conditions.

The other thing that's involved is we have a lot of wooded habitat now. And so a lot of areas that even areas that traditionally didn't have wooded habitat, even in our area, like where it was just grassy plains have come more woody in their environment in especially on the eastern half of our state. And that's increasing our tick population as well. So it's kind of this interaction with the climate, the habitat modification, as well as the human interaction in those environments.

Mark at Insect Shield

Right. I guess there are more preventive measures that you can take, like Dr. Biggs, if you're talking about the pets in that realm, then what do you watch out for, or I guess, preventive stuff, and then the symptoms is something that also that we weren't talking about.

Dr. Biggs

You know the environment I think, historically, we thought our friends to the North had a great, they didn't they didn't have ticks. I actually joked with Dr. Talley last spring, I said we had some really significantly cold weather here in Oklahoma. And I said please tell me our ticks are going to be better than then they were because we went through below freezing for extended period of time, pretty unusual for us. And he said, No, no, it's not gonna not gonna make a change for us and he was right.

We saw ticks after that and continue to see it year round. So from the veterinary prevention standpoint, as a as a practitioner, my general recommendation is for cats and dogs in particular, to be on preventatives year round, both flea and tick preventatives, and we haven’t really talked about it, but I know a number of your listeners will be interested in mosquito borne, so we're all worried about heartworms in both those species as well.

So it becomes, that's what I do for my pets, we have a variety of products. And it may be you need to visit with your veterinarian is my recommendation for animal owners on what's appropriate for the particular conditions of your pet, and their potential exposure, as well as the environment that they're interacting with. 

The thing that's important to remember, and Dr. Talley and I talk about this in our large animal species, too, is, as we see a variety of products are very effective products, but we also worry about resistance over time. And so just because a product was effective 10 years ago, it may not be the case now. And we're really taking a look at that, I think across a variety of species in a number of areas of resistance and how we're going to look at that. But the core thing for me, as well as protection of my pets, as well as my family is prevention year round, and the products that we have at our disposal to use those. And  I feel confident that in those products in their effectiveness, it's much more cost effective.

I think we see that from our animal owners that hey, things are really expensive, do I have to use it year round? And my recommendation is an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure in the long run. It's going to save on those dollars. You know, classic signs we see, generally speaking across most tick borne diseases are going to be flu like symptoms initially, fever, inappetence [lack of appetite], and we can see vomiting and diarrhea a little bit.

When we take a look at blood work, we see changes in those blood profiles, particularly anemia can be seen or decrease in the platelet numbers. Those are kind of classic signs we would see around here. But long term, we can also see some real harm that goes to our major or major organ systems, particularly the kidney. Those who are at risk. And the things that I would classically see in practice would be really high fevers, or animals that need just don't feel good. Inappetence, vomiting, diarrhea, or anorexia even as extreme as that weight loss can be there too. So it's always a good idea at those annual visits with your veterinarian to know. Do a heartworm test, but also consider doing a tick screening to see if we've had some exposure there as well.

Mark at Insect Shield

Okay. And buy “inappetence” you mean loss of appetite?

Dr. Biggs

[Right.] [They're not running to the food bowl like they regularly would do.] Cleaning up dinner, they just don't feel good. You know, maybe take a partial meal or not want to eat at all.

Mark at Insect Shield

Yeah. That, I mean, dogs are often very excited about their food, even if it's the same every day, which is surprising.

Dr. Biggs                                                        

Excited about it. And so those are signs, and they’re real nondescript signs, right? Like, there's nothing that says “Light flashing, I have tick borne disease.” And so we may see things that are subtle, but they can certainly lead to significant complications.

Mark at Insect Shield

So monitor and be sure to get them in for regular checkups. And also to talk about the different preventatives that are available. Yeah. Okay, cool. Right. So I guess, one thing that I read about is that there are much fewer cases of Lyme or tick borne illness in Oklahoma, or that general Midwest area.

But I did want to ask, because I've kind of seen this in other articles that I've read and stuff. It's like, well, they're they may be there, but they're just not being reported. I mean, that that is a possibility. Right? I don't know. What do you guys, Dr. Talley, what do you say about that?

Dr. Talley                                                                   

Well part of that goes into the tick biology like I said, our black legged tick down here tends to feed on reptiles. And whereas up in the northern regions where we see more prevalence of Lyme, and both in humans and in pets, it's because the particular life states of that tick is feeding on a particular type of mice, or mouse. And in when you have that, it can change the how prevalent it is, and so forth. 

We also think there's what we call these, these two, we call them clades at this time, so they're the same species. But genetically, something's going on. So we have a northern type species and a southern type species, if you want to call them that. And our area, our black legged tick, down here tends to more fall in that southern type species, where they're feeding on those reptiles and other cold blooded animals that are just not as, as they're not going to carry that pathogen like other systems do.

As far as tick borne disease even in Oklahoma, it's probably really under reported. And again, we depending on what you're doing, especially with pets, as I see that it's probably under reported quite a bit. Unless it's just a very severe reaction. Like Dr. Biggs said, it's little things that you notice pets can recover from most of our tick borne diseases, even without a treatment, as they're on a good nutritional plan. And if it's if you got them on a good diet, they're going to be okay. 

But when it comes to the ticks, I've got a colleague, we're testing ticks all the time. And we're not really detecting the pathogen that causes Lyme, but we certainly are detecting Ehrlichia. Spotted Fever rickettsia is what we call it. Some people used to call that Rocky Mountain spotted fever, but there's more than one species now. So we call it Spotted Fever rickettsia.

And our ticks down here certainly have that. And that's not just one particular tick species, it's across the board. Doesn't matter if it's American Dog Tick, the lone star tick, or even the black legged tick, we're detecting these pathogens in here, that here they're just not line. Yeah. And so at some point, I think down here, we just don't have the, what we call that, that that perfect “ignitus”, where everything is meeting together for Lyme disease to kind of be more prevalent, whereas up in the Midwest and along certainly in the northeast, you have everything. There's just right there the tick vector, yeah. Multiple animal hosts that can harbor the pathogen and plus the interaction with humans and pets. 

Mark at Insect Shield

Yeah, one of the things people that we interviewed who is a big gardener up in the Northeast, and there are a lot of deer around her area. And she called them the mass transit of ticks.

Dr. Talley

We call them tick dogs down here. So we were looking for when we're doing tick research, tick trials, and we're trying to assess the environment and look out in the pasture. The first place we go to is the deer trail. And, and a lot of people, I have some neighbors that have a deer feeder in their backyard to bring the deer in and, and I said, Well, you're just bringing ticks in. So I have a completely different way of thinking about deer.

Mark at Insect Shield

She showed us pictures of her garden, which was fabulous. And then she had a picture of a deer. And I was thinking that's really cute. And also not so cute. From the deer perspective, or the tick spreading perspective. 

So, yeah, I think this has been great. I really appreciate you guys taking the time to fill us in on some of these questions. And I don't know if we have covered the idea that that you really ought to get into your veterinarian, I think probably more often do you have I mean, one of the things that we found some of the Lyme organizations that we work with, they say a lot of times it's hard to find doctors that are really aware.

I mean, if you're in certain areas of the country, they're going to be more aware, but if you're not, you might have Lyme and misdiagnosis a year or more. And I think, Dr. Biggs, in terms of getting a pet into a vet. What are some of the challenges there? Or are there veterinarians that are more astute about the kinds of problems that ticks present?

Dr. Biggs

We in Oklahoma state have a big “one health” focus of this human health and veterinary medicine and the environment and how that relates, I will generally say, in my experience, veterinarians are going to be very well versed when it comes to tick borne diseases, because nearly every species we work on regardless of whether that's a bird or reptile or cats and dogs, or horses and cattle or sheep and goats, you name it. Ticks have a preference for a variety of those species. So in general veterinarians are going to be very well versed at tick borne diseases. 

In fact, I can give you a personal example. My husband spiked a fever, had some unusual presentations of signs. And he went into the doctor and I said, Are you sure this you could do all discuss tick borne disease? And he said, Well, no, we didn't. And I said, Why don't you? Why don't you go back in and talk. And so in my husband's medical record, it says veterinarian recommends testing for tick borne disease. It didn't put that that was his wife. But we, most veterinarians are gonna be very well versed. That was, in fact, what my husband had, he responded very quickly and appropriately to the antibiotics that we would use in veterinary medicine, similarly, that we will use in human medicine.

But it is one of those things. You know, I think that Lyme disease gets a lot of headlines. We talk about it, we see it in the press a great deal. I think it's also important to recognize sorry, Dr. Talley, it's gonna be hard for me to get changed on that Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever, but certainly Ehrlichiosis we have other tick borne diseases that can cause problems in both animals and humans as well.

And so we don't want to we don't forget that. I’ve found very similar signs. And so in answer your question, I think veterinarians overall are going to be very well versed in that we're going to be able to guide you on the appropriate products for your particular situation and appropriate for your area, too. They may find that one particular product is going to work better than another.

Mark at Insect Shield

Yeah, that's, that's really good to know. And so one other point, maybe doctor Talley, you mentioned that you're seeing different kinds of ticks now that you probably weren't seeing before. So how does that factor into maybe those are harder to recognize, or what how does that apply to the research that you're doing - these new ticks?

Dr. Talley

Well, in one in particular tick that we're trying to look forward that we haven't found in Oklahoma yet, but it's slowly spreading its way from the East Coast to the West, is the Asian Longhorned tick Haemaphysalis longicornis. We also run a tick rearing lab here that I'm a part of. And so we are making sure that we're rearing all the species that need to be reared for all of our all of our industry partners so that they can have access to this resource and test their products, as well as the CDC and any kind of academic partner.

So when we do that, we're constantly communicating with these people kind of on the leading edge and some of this is human pathogen work and tick borne or tick borne illness work. And again, what we're seeing is that it's the Asian Longhorned tick is a is a new species of tick, that we're concerned with, it causes problems in cattle and can cause some human issues as it gets established. But it's also the diversity within the species. 

Even in the Brown Dog Tick, we see different genetic makeups within two different specific types of what we call clades of ticks.

So again, we used to just with our advanced tools, we can do a lot of genetic testing now and determine whether this, there's maybe some genetics behind why certain ticks, even though they’re the same species, are not feeding on the same animals, as they would if they're in, say, our area, or up in the Northeast.

And so it's not only the diversity of new ticks coming in, like new species coming in, that we're always concerned about. We're certainly always concerned about their reinfestation Rhipicephalus microplus or Rhipicephalus annulatus, which is a cattle tick, for cattle movement. But we're also looking at the genetic diversity within the species that is presenting some problems. And, and it presents the problems because some of these, they don't transmit these pathogens at the same rate, as say, when we just group them all into the same species is like, Oh, this is the same species? Well, morphologically.

So on the outside, everything looks like a Brown Dog Tick. But genetically, there's some slight differences that make them either less efficient or more efficient at transmitting pathogens. Just like we had an outbreak in Arizona that we usually don't see a lot of spotted fever and rickettsiosis down there. And it's the Brown Dog Tick that's involved.

There's a big effort that went on down there that they essentially the industry really jumped in and tried to help and making sure every pet is treated in these Native American villages and Native American communities. Because we had a really high not only morbidity, but mortality rate in this this population down in Arizona, that we didn't ever see this pathogen before. And it's being transmitted through a different tick. So, again, we're always concerned about the spread of tick borne disease and how not only new species can bring things in, but how genetic differences even within the tick species can kind of either make it more prolific, a pathogen more profile, prolific, or maybe not so much.

Mark at Insect Shield

Yeah. That that's really awesome. I mean, some of the other folks that we've talked to doing research in this area are talking about the same thing and the kinds of threats that ticks present. They're very efficient and highly evolved in terms of the ways that they… there's kind of this symbiosis between the pathogen and the tick, which you wouldn't have thought about, I guess. And so they kind of work together to, to do the damage that they're doing. Of course, none of them is really like trying to attack humans per se. That's just kind of how they survive.

Well, I thank you so much. Both of you, Dr. Biggs and Dr. Talley coming out from Oklahoma State University and making the trip to Seattle for us. Really nice to talk to you both. Thanks for your insights today. And we'll look forward to talking again and maybe sometime in the future. 

Dr. Biggs

We appreciate the opportunity. We have leading experts right here with Dr. Talley, of course, and our veterinarians at the National Center for Veterinary parasitology here at Oklahoma State so we appreciate the opportunity on behalf of veterinary medicine as well as OSU Extension to visit today.