Ticks now active in Connecticut 'year-round,' expert says

Photo of Joseph Tucci
This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, a carrier of Lyme disease. 

This undated file photo provided by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a blacklegged tick, also known as a deer tick, a carrier of Lyme disease. 

James Gathany/Associated Press

Ticks in Connecticut are now surviving during the winter due to climate change, according to The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station.

The warmer weather has caused ticks to be "active year-round," according to Goudarz Molaei, of the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. The average annual air temperature in the state increased by 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

"The number one reason is that we haven't had that greater frost, that long frost. This winter so far it has been pretty mild, there were weeks where the temperature has reached 60 degrees or even higher," Molaei said. "In addition to having warmer winters, we are having shorter winters."

In the past, between Dec. 1 and the end of March, the station would see a maximum of 50 ticks, however, it is now seeing up to 800 ticks during that same time period, Molaei said.

"This year has been substantially worse with regard to the number of tick submissions. Some days we are receiving reports of 20 ticks per day. This is wintertime, it is unexpected," Molaei said. 

Molaei said that as long as the temperature is above freezing, deer ticks (which are native to North America) can survive the winter and actively seek new hosts. The increase in the deer population in the state has also contributed to the growth in the number of ticks because it has made it easier for them to find hosts and feed. 

Over the past several years, the state has also seen several invasive tick species, which are normally adapted to warmer climates, like the lone star tick, the Gulfcoast tick and the Asian longhorned tick. Molaei said the department has also intercepted other intensive tick species which clung to travelers coming back from visiting areas like Africa and Central America.

"When we first discovered these tick populations ... we thought they might not be able to survive winters in our state. But, to our disappointment and surprise, they did," Molaei said. 

Molaei described the Asian longhorned tick as "our worst nightmare," because females can reproduce without relying on a mate. 

"It is so bad that in some areas we go for surveys, it takes five or ten minutes then you end up, when you walk out of the infested area, that you might collect up to 200, sometimes higher numbers, of ticks on yourself," Molaei said. 

The ticks can carry multiple diseases at the same time like the Powassan virus, which killed a Connecticut woman in 2022, and Lyme disease. Molaei said while the prevalence of infection of Powassan virus in deer ticks is "less than 2 or 3 percent," it is still a cause for concern because it leads to encephalitis, which is an infection of the brain and currently has no cure.

The Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station is planning to conduct a study this year to determine the number of people who have antibodies to the Powassan virus.

"One thing we do not know about this virus is what percentage of people that are bitten by deer ticks might be infected with this virus. We don't really know what percentage of people who are infected by the virus develop disease symptoms," Molaei said. 

Molaei said that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station $5 million in 2022 to develop "creative" ways to control the tick population and has also put more funding into training scientists to tackle the outbreak. 

The Connecticut Department of Public Health also recommends people take the following steps to prevent tick-borne diseases:

  • Avoid tall grass and overgrown, brushy areas.
  • Stay in the middle of trails when hiking in wooded areas
  • Consider using insect repellent
  • Tuck pant legs into socks, wear long-sleeved shirts, and closed shoes.
  • Wear light-colored clothing to see the ticks easier for removal.
  • When returning indoors, shower using a washcloth or puff to remove any unattached ticks.
  • Examine yourself, children, and pets for ticks when returning indoors.
  • Talk to your veterinarian to find out how to protect your pets from tick bites.