TUESDAY, Sept. 20, 2022 (HealthDay News) — They look so cute, quietly grazing in your yard. But overpopulation of white-tailed deer in the northeastern United States may be contributing to the spread of Lyme disease and another tick-borne disease, anaplasmosis, especially in suburban areas, a new study suggests.

Research shows that these deer, which carry the ticks that transmit the two diseases, no longer live in wooded areas, but often live in backyards of suburban homes, increasing the risk of transmission.

“Your yard is their home, and if you’re concerned about ticks or tick control or potential damage, then you have to recognize that this is where they’ve actually chosen to live and either work with them or deal with them.” said lead researcher Jennifer Mullinax. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Wildlife Ecology and Management at the University of Maryland.

Deer themselves do not pose a threat to health. But blackleg (deer tick) and the lone star ticked they carry the spread of Lyme disease and other diseases, Mullinax explained.

Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by the bite of an infected tick. It causes symptoms such as rash, fever, headache and fatigue. If left untreated, it can spread to the heart, joints, and nervous system. Anaplasmosis causes similar symptoms and can lead to bleeding and kidney failure.

The ticks that cause these diseases settle and reproduce in your lawn.

As development encroaches on their habitat, deer live closer to people, and the landscapes make it easy to graze on grasses, shrubs and flowers, Molyneux said. Your lawn is “warm, safe, less predators, and it’s just convenient,” she said.

This five-year study found that suburban deer often spend the night within 55 yards of human homes.

For the study, Mullinax’s team tracked 51 deer that were equipped with GPS tracking devices.

The trackers showed that deer avoided residential areas during the day but gravitated toward them at night, especially in winter. Animals often slept on the edges of lawns and in the yards of houses and apartment buildings.

That number of deer in residential areas increases the risk of people contracting tick-borne diseases, Mullinax said. She said reducing the tick population by removing deer or treating areas where deer lie can help limit the spread of the disease.

Managed deer hunting can help keep tick populations under control, but culling the herd can be difficult to accomplish, the study notes. People don’t want hunters in suburban areas, and chemically reducing deer fertility hasn’t worked, the report added.

Mullinax said it’s possible to limit access to your yard by installing deer fencing or mulch barriers, but the best way to prevent the disease may be to control the tick population.

“Most people get Lyme disease from ticks in their yard. There are many different methods of tick control,” she said. “For county agencies and state agencies, it really indicates to them to make some adjustments in deer population management.”

Dr. Mark Siegel, clinical professor of medicine at New York University Langone Medical Center in New York, who analyzed the findings.

He suggested several strategies for reducing the tick population in your yard: Cut the grass short. Spray your yard for ticks. Use anti-tick products. And check your body and clothes for ticks after spending time outdoors.

“I tell them to look for bumps on the scalp and pubic area,” Siegel said. “I tell them if you’re feeling tired, it might not be COVID — it might be Lyme.”

Because Lyme disease is difficult to diagnose, Siegel said he is not afraid to prescribe antibiotics if he suspects Lyme disease based on symptoms alone.

“I fall into the over-medication category,” he said. “But this study makes me look pretty good because it basically says these things are getting out of hand. We expect to see a lot more disease.”

The study was published online Sept. 17 in the journal Urban ecosystems.

Additional information

Learn more about Lyme disease at US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

SOURCES: Jennifer Molyneux, Ph.D., assistant professor, Department of Wildlife Ecology and Management, University of Maryland, College Park; Mark Siegel, MD, clinical professor of medicine, NYU Langone Medical Center, New York; Urban ecosystems, online, 17 September 2022


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