Gone huntin’: Deer season carries risks for the hunter and the hunted

Ticks found a good spot to feed behind the ear of a spike buck that fell to an arrow in Chilmark. — Photo by Ned Casey

I stood in a cluster of bare beech trees in Chilmark Monday on the last day of the year, armed with a Pennsylvania flintlock rifle and anticipating the end of the day and the Massachusetts deer hunting season that had begun more than 10 weeks earlier under a canopy of green leaves. I was tired and cold, and with plenty of venison in the freezer and a doe hanging in my shed, I was not particularly anxious to shoot a deer, but still ready to take advantage of the opportunity should it present itself.

My rifle was similar in most respects to the type of weapon carried by the Lewis and Clark expedition on its transcontinental voyage of discovery from 1804 to 1806. I had yet to shoot a deer with it, but each season I reserved the last day of the season to give it a try, in a nod to our nation’s earliest hunting traditions.

Over the course of the archery, shotgun, and muzzle loader deer hunting seasons I had waited in ambush, most often in a tree stand, mindful that there was another creature lurking in the woods ready to do me harm: the deer tick and its tiny body full of pathogens. Despite many hours spent in the woods, I was lucky this season. The few ticks that I did encounter I found on my clothing and not embedded in my skin.

The correlation between an abundance of deer and an abundance of deer ticks is well documented. Other factors come into play, such as habitat and weather conditions. But it is the deer that supplies the main blood meal at a critical stage in the two-year life cycle of a creature that has, as far as I can tell, no redeeming value.

I shot my first deer of the year, a spike buck, in Chilmark during the archery season. Clusters of ticks in various stages of engorgement were attached behind each ear. It was early November and the weather was still relatively mild. Later in the season, the deer I shot carried fewer ticks.

Peak activity for adult deer ticks occurs in late October and early November, according to the American Lyme Disease Foundation. Adults actively seek hosts throughout the fall, waiting up to three feet above the ground on stalks of grass or leaf tips to latch onto deer or other larger mammals that include humans, dogs, cats, horses, and other domestic animals. Female deer ticks that successfully latch on to a blood meal drop off after about one week and snuggle into the leaf litter where in the spring they will lay about 3,000 eggs.

If there is any good news, few cases of Lyme disease are acquired from adult tick bites because the ticks are relatively large and attached ticks are usually found and removed before disease transmission occurs. The real danger comes from the nymphs, or juvenile ticks, which are so small that they may easily go undiscovered.

Over the years, I have written enough about ticks to know I was taking a risk on the last day of the 2011 deer hunting season when I decided to take a stand by a stone wall in Chilmark. It was unusually warm and damp for the last day of December and I stood in a big pile of leaves. It was prime tick habitat, but I ignored the risk. That evening as I lay down to sleep I thought briefly about checking myself thoroughly for ticks, but I was tired and did not want to get up.

The next morning I scratched an itch on the inside of my leg and felt a slight bump. A closer look revealed an embedded deer tick. I knew it had not been in long, but I was still concerned. I have never had Lyme or any of the other diseases ticks are capable of transmitting that include babesiosis, ehrlichiosis, and anaplasmosis.

To be on the safe side I asked my doctor to prescribe two 100 mg doxycycline pills, the standard treatment for a tick bite when caught early.

Sensing an opportunity to collect material for a column, I sent the tick embedded on a piece of Scotch tape to Sam Telford, an associate professor of infectious diseases at the Tufts University School of Veterinary Medicine and a well-known tick researcher who conducts field work on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. I also emailed a series of questions.

In general, I asked Professor Telford, should a person who finds an embedded tick consider sending the tick to a lab?

“No,” he said. “The only important fact is whether the tick has fed for more than 24 hours. The probability that an adult tick is positive is one in five to one in two in coastal Massachusetts, and thus you are confirming the obvious. Note that even with your tick, which was positive, if it were me I would not have bothered to take the two doxycycline pills (prophylaxis). The probability of transmission, even with an infected tick, if it has not fed long enough, is very small. Conversely, even with a test result of negative, if I had a tick on me for more than 36 hours or so, I would take the two tabs of doxycycline.

“I once had a nymphal deer tick on me for 28 hours and dissected it. It had Lyme and babesia. I did not treat. I remained free of infection.

“There is no such thing as a good tick bite. A test is false assurance. The most important thing is to be aware of the signs and symptoms of tick-borne infection and to seek medical treatment promptly if such is noted. The most important feature is fever, although Lyme is usually accompanied by an expanding rash, and there may only be that expanding rash with no fever. However, there is no reason to panic if one is bitten.

I repeat, there is no reason to panic. It is not like drinking strychnine or cyanide in which there is a very typical progression of events and then you die, with no exceptions. Infection may not cause disease. There is tremendous individual variation in response to infection (but there is little variation to being poisoned). The treatment for these infections is usually highly effective.”

Professor Telford is an advocate for deer hunting and for opening of closed properties to hunters where deer find refuge. “In general, anything that promotes deer hunting, any little advance, is a good thing,” he said.

As for my tick, “That tick was pretty hot for Lyme,” he said.