ROCK ISLAND — Individual ticks and fleas may be hard to see, but it's plainly obvious they're causing more problems earlier than usual this year, according to local veterinarians, entomologists, biologists and animal shelter workers.
"We truly believe we are seeing a much larger number of dogs and cats with fleas and ticks already this year over last," said Sarah Pender, practice manager at the Rock Island Animal Hospital, 2312 5th Ave., Rock Island.
Particularly alarming has been the number of "Lyme-positive dogs" seen so far, she said.
"Last year, we had a total of two," Ms. Pender said. "Just this year from January through now, we have newly diagnosed 11 dogs."
Entomologists with the University of Illinois Extension Office, serving Rock Island, Henry, Mercer and Stark counties, don't believe the number of fleas and ticks has increased but rather that people and their pets have ventured outside earlier than usual because of warmer-than-average temperatures, spokeswoman Martha Smith said.
"My guess, though, is that it's a little bit of both," said Darrin Good, a biology professor at Augustana College, Rock Island. "One reason there are so many darned insects out already is because of the mild winter and early spring. Almost all insects are kept under control to a great degree by the weather. Harsh cold winters and hot dry summers tend to decrease or harm the insect population."
The warm weather also draws more people and pets outside, he said. "And if there were more snow on the ground still, it probably wouldn't have mattered."
"Fleas begin to hatch at 65 degrees Fahrenheit, so every time we reach this temperature, we have hundreds of fleas beginning to hatch," Ms. Pender said. "Typically, we do not see this temperature until spring, but this year, we saw that temperature several times during the winter months.
"Ticks can survive in temperatures just below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, and as temperatures rise, they become more active," she said. "One adult female flea can lay as many as 50 eggs a day. A tick lays 100 eggs at a time."
"Also, if it stays warm for a longer period of time, more generations of them will hatch," Ms. Smith, of the extension service, said.
A recent cold, rainy snap likely won't last long enough to kill many of them, Dr. Good said.
If anything, rainy conditions likely will boost the population of insects such as gnats and mosquitoes, who breed in standing bodies of water such as birdbaths, puddles, discarded tires, cups and cans, he said.
Patti McRae, executive director of the Animal Welfare Center in Milan, urged people to take precautions earlier than usual to address the pest population.
"Many people generally wait until May or June before they take preventive measures," she said. "My suggestion is to get started today."
Get new flea collars and start using spot-on medicines, Dr. Good said. "And have your dogs treated for heartworm in case of mosquito transmit."
Animal shelter workers rely on Frontline Plus, a spot-on medication, Ms. McRae said.
The Rock Island Animal Hospital has a new product called Vectra 3D that kills fleas, ticks, mosquitoes, flies, live and mites, Ms. Pender said
Prevention's the name of the game, Dr. Good said. "The size of a tick that transmits the bacteria for Lyme disease is the size of the head of a pin, so there's almost no way to find that tick on a dog or a cat, so the best thing to do is prevent them in the first place."
People also shouldn't forget about protecting themselves as much as possible, he said.
"The best advice I tell my students is to dress like a nerd," Dr. Good said. "Wear light-colored clothing, tuck your pants into your socks, and your shirt into your pants. That way, if ticks get on your clothes, you can see them and pick them off."
Any fleas or ticks found need to be removed within 24 hours to prevent any transmission from occurring, Dr. Good said. "The idea is to use a pair of tweezers and gently pull the whole thing out. You don't want to squeeze them or burn them with a match because both could initiate it to regurgitate into the bite area."
Using a petroleum jelly in hopes of smothering insects is an urban myth that doesn't work, he said.
Another common misconception deals with chiggers, Dr. Good said. People who think a red spot on their skin is a chigger that needs to be removed are wasting their time. "The chigger has already fallen off by then. They've already fed on your blood and have dropped off."
A typically recommended insect repellent contains DEET, but a product Dr. Good became acquainted with while in the Amazon features an ingredient known as picaridin, which has a sweeter smell than a nastier-smelling DEET product, he said.
"It seems earlier this year, but it's time now to err on the side of caution," Ms. McRae said. "It's better to be safe than sorry."
Common canine parasitic diseases, symptoms; Plant advice shared
* Lyme disease, carried by deer tick or black-legged tick; found in every U.S. state and Canadian province; dogs are 50 percent more likely to get it than humans; common signs are lameness, fever, swollen joints, kidney failure and anorexia. * Anaplasmosis, also carried by deer tick or black-legged tick; lack of energy, high fever, swollen, very painful joints, appetite loss, vomiting and diarrhea. * Ehrlichiosis, brown dog tick; appetite loss, depression, fever, painful joints, bloody nose and pale gums. * Heartworm disease, mosquitos; later developing mild, persistent cough, reluctance to move or exercise, tiredness after moderate exercise, reduced appetite, weight loss.
Source: Pamphlets provided by the Rock Island Animal Hospital
Horticulture educator Martha Smith, of the University of Illinois Extension Office, serving Rock Island, Henry, Mercer and Stark counties, also advised gardeners to keep a close eye on plants, trees and shrubs that blossomed early because of the warmer than usual temperatures.
"What has emerged early will show some damage," she said. "How much damage will depend on how cold it gets, the duration of the cold, and how many times it gets cold."
Most plants can tolerate temperatures dropping to 30 to 31 degrees, she said. "If it gets down to 25 or 26, we recommend loosely covering them with cloth, not plastic."
Some plants will continue to grow, despite frosts but may look burned or lose their leaves, she said.
Ms. Smith commiserated, however, with apple and grape growers, who can't cover their entire orchards, and only can hope cold conditions won't linger and radiant heat from the soil will protect trees and vines.
She also cautioned rhubarb growers from eating any if it's hit by a frost because of an acid in the plant that could crystallize. It's safer just to cut it and let it re-sprout," she said.
Asparagus growers don't have the same concerns, but may find plant texture to be bad, and choose to cut it and wait for it to regrow.
Today is Wednesday, March 12, the 71st day of 2014. There are 294 days left in the year. 1864 -- 150 years ago: Soldiers from the barracks on the Arsenal manage to elude the vigilance of the guard nearly every day and come to town armed. In the hands of excited and perhaps intoxicated men, these weapons are dangerous. 1889 -- 125 years ago: Manufacturing's merchants and professional men of Moline were petitioning the Western Union Telegraph company to establish a telegraph office in the business area of the city. 1914 -- 100 years ago: Three Rock Island students, the Misses Eleanor Cleaveland, Dorothy McCabe and Ruth West, escaped injury when fire destroyed College Hall at Wellesley College in Massachusetts. 1939 -- 75 years ago: The Daughters of Union Veterans of the Civil War gave a party for William H. Stremmel, the only survivor of John Buford Post 243, GAR. 1964 -- 50 years ago: The East Moline Grade School Board of Education last night granted salary increases totaling about $47,000 to teachers and staff members. 1989 -- 25 years ago: Five champion spellers from the Rock Island/Milan School district were selected after competition this week at Modern Woodmen of America. Winners are Sarah Cottay, Christopher Gilbrich, Jared Vogele, Kedric Roper and Kenny Stevenson.