7 Weird Tricks for Preventing Tick Bites You Can’t Afford to Ignore!

4 Dirty Secrets Borrelia spp. Bacteria Hope You Never Learn!

10 Sneaky Signs of Lyme Disease (#9 Will Blow Your Mind)!

If only Peromyscus mice could read, maybe they could click through a few helpful infotainment articles to learn how to end all the Lyme disease shaming they endure on social and elsewhere, and start living their best lives.

OTHO, members of the white-footed and North American deer mice squad (P. leucopus and P. maniculatus, repectively) aren’t all that tech-savvy and rarely have Internet access, so literacy isn’t the main issue here.

It’s crazy why a computer mouse is admired but this real-life rodent is vilified!

Ok, fine… both white-footed and deer mice sherpa ticks and bacteria across a physical landscape instead dragging a cursor across a display screen but, really, what’s the diff? Let’s not forget that computer mice can spread pathogens, too, especially when handled by more than one human.

That said, in point of fact there are some telling distinctions, starting with the design specs. At 3 to 4 in (8-10 cm) long, not counting the tail,  these Peromyscus mice are smaller than electronic mice, which average 4 to 6 in (10-15 cm) in length, not counting the cord (if they have one). Computer mice are offered in a rainbow of colors; white-footed and deer mice are available in a limited palette of white, grays, and blacks, plus some brown tones that are rarely used for electronics equipment. Oh, and the biological models all come with trademarked white undersides and feet, standard.

There are functional dissimilarities as well. For one thing, computer mice are powered by an electrical outlet or batteries, and active day or night. Conversely, all white-footed and deer mice are wireless, powered by the sun (indirectly, in the form of seeds, fruits, leaves, insects, and spiders), and this is curious indeed because they are almost exclusively nocturnal. Computer mice are assembled by humans in factories, predominantly in Taiwan, while biological mice are strictly self-replicating.

Can a mouse make you sick as a dog? The Twitterverse is freaking out!

As I mentioned earlier, both electronic and biological mice are implicated in the transmission of disease, but there are disparities here as well. Those with cords or batteries are known to disperse Rhinoviruses (aka the common cold) and Influenzaviruses (aka the flu), while those with tails have been implicated in the conveyance of Borrelia spp. bacterium.*

The function of computer mice in the life cycle of colds and flu is relatively simple — some human working at a desktop or laptop distractedly wipes a runny nose with their hand, unintentionally ferrying virus-laden mucus to the surface of the interface accessory. There, the infectious agents can chill for as long as 24 (Rhinovirus) to 48 hours (Influenzavirus), waiting for another hand to provide a lift to another nose. (Naturally, the entire life cycle of either virus involves more than noses, hands, and computer peripherals but you get my drift).

You won’t believe the one weird trick this bacterium uses to get ahead! 

The connection between Peromyscus mice and Borrelia — the slender, spiral spirochete that causes Lyme disease — is pretty complicated, unfolding over the bacterium’s 2-3 year life cycle and through various species’ circulatory systems. Research has made the links easy to follow, though, so let’s dive down this rabbit hole.

There are four main species of Lyme bacteria: Borrelia burgdorferi and B. mayonii are most prevalent in the U.S., while B. afzelii and B. garinii are found primarily in Europe and Asia. The Lyme bacteria is common in temperate ecosystems that are home to key reservoir hosts (animals infected with the bacteria who act as a source of infection for other animals), such as white-footed and deer mice, and a primary vector (animals who carry and transmit a pathogen into another living organism), the black-legged tick.

This strange fact about ticks is sure to shock you!

Black-legged (Ixodes scapularis) and western black-legged (Ixodes pacificus) ticks will pass Lyme bacteria on to other animals but not to their own offspring.  Because Borrelia is a blood-borne pathogen, each tick acquires the bacteria independently. And accidentally.  As opportunistic exoparasites,  Ixodes ticks will hitch a ride on just about any creature that happens to pass nearby. While the tick obtains the obligatory blood meal as a larva, a nymph, and an adult to complete its own life cycle, the bacteria gets passed back and forth between vertebrate species susceptible to this disease, including mice, deer, dogs, cats, and humans.

You have no idea what insane things happen when oak trees, moths, and mice meetup!

Every so often, possibly due to weather conditions or as a stress response, oaks produce a bumper crop of acorns. The technical term for this is a mast year and — just as you would expect — when mice take advantage of this easy-access food resource their population expands. More mice provide more opportunities for black-legged ticks to find a blood meal, and more chances to share Borrelia bacteria. The result of this multi-species smorgasbord is a predictable increase in the risk of Lyme disease approximately two years after a large acorn crop.

White-footed and deer mice don’t feed on acorns exclusively, though. Another favorite food is the gypsy moth pupa, so in years of larger rodent populations there are fewer gypsy moth larvae (aka caterpillars) around to eat oak leaves. When oak trees keep more of their leaves they’re able to convert more sunlight into sugar through photosynthesis, and then use that extra energy for growth and acorn production. That’s why oaks and gypsy moths are well-known Lyme disease influencers.

On the downhill side of this circle… when the number of acorns declines after a mast year, the mouse population collapses, resulting in a higher yield of gypsy moths caterpillars, increased oak tree defoliation, and a subsequent dwindling of acorn production. Fewer mice also means ticks have a harder time finding a blood meal, there’s less sharing of the Borrelia bacteria, and so the Lyme disease risk diminishes (but doesn’t disappear completely).

You’ll never guess why I wrote about mice, bacteria, ticks, oak trees, and moths!

It’s not because I’m trying to drive more traffic to my blog (although more eyes are always welcome so please do share if you feel inclined). Notice this isn’t a slideshow and I didn’t make you click a NEXT button 16 times to get to here. I didn’t trick you into opening an advertiser’s website, and I won’t be receiving a check at the end of the month based on the number of impressions, clicks, and conversions this topic generated online.

But I’m also not an disinterested bystander. In 1997, I worked with threatened and endangered raptors as part of a summer internship. The research center was located on wooded, exurban property. While showering at the end of one hot, humid day I discovered a semi-engorged tick on the dorsal side of my hip. My roommate helped me remove the parasite and flush it down the toilet, then we proceeded to make dinner and debrief one another about our day.

I woke up the next morning running a temperature of 102°F.  Even in my fevered state I was able to connect the way I felt with events from the previous day and form a hypothesis. I grabbed a hand-mirror, twisted my torso to peek around the corner of my waist, and saw a tell-tale red bullseye rash around the bite site. By nature of my work as a wildlife biologist and rehabilitator, I was already familiar with these symptoms. I called my doctor, explained what had happened, why I was without-a-doubt certain I had contracted Lyme disease, and convinced her to send a prescription to my pharmacy. My roommate went out to get the meds and I went back to bed.

What happened next will surprise you!

A couple of days later I was back at work caring for eagles, hawks, falcons, and owls. I wasn’t especially worried about the long-term consequences of exposure because I knew people who receive appropriate antibiotics in the first stages of the disease  (3-30 days post-bite) usually experience a rapid full recovery — and the only thing better than treatment 24 hours post-bite is to not be bitten in the first place. Several years later, as part of a extensive physical exam that involved some other blood work, I tested negative for Lyme and haven’t given it much thought since (until I started to write this piece, that is).

The prognosis would’ve been quite different if I’d not found the tick or recognized the signs. Like so many other zoonotic diseases, Lyme becomes far more difficult to deal with if you miss the early treatment window. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), later symptoms include “severe headaches and neck stiffness… facial palsy (the loss of muscle tone or even a droop on one or both sides of the face), arthritis with severe joint pain and swelling (particularly the knees and other large joints)… heart palpitations or an irregular heart beat (Lyme carditis), episodes of dizziness or shortness of breath, inflammation of the brain and spinal cord, and nerve pain.”

It’s true, I dodged a serious corkscrew-shaped bacteria bullet, thanks to a higher level of awareness within my profession (which, it has to be said, also increases my risk of exposure). It’s certainly not my intention to belittle the disease, or its repercussions, which are serious and should not be taken lightly.

However, IMHO it’s hard to justify placing so much blame on the shoulders of Peromyscus mice when they’re but one link in a disease network that has many other reservoirs and vectors, and is impacted by as many confounding environmental factors. This criticism is especially pointed when Homo sapiens insist on disregarding our own species’ contribution to the expansion of the Lyme bacteria, including…

What The Reptilian Elite Won’t Tell You About Lyme Disease, Mice, And Climate Change

* Just to be clear, bacteria can be found on computer mice, and Peromyscus mice are known to carry certain viruses. But this is a blog, not an encyclopedia, so in the interest of time, simplicity, and narrative flow, this post focuses on the connection between mice and Lyme disease;  Hanta virus and other mouse-borne zoonotic diseases will have to wait be addressed another time.

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© 2020 Next-Door Nature. No reprints without written permission from the author (I’d love for you to share my work--just ask first). Thanks to these photographers for making their work available through a Creative Commons license (from top to bottom): Seney Natural History Association, Don Loarie, Centers for Disease Control—Division of Vector-Borne Infectious Diseases (CDC-DVBID), J.N. Stuart, Christa R., James Maughn, and USFWS Mountain-Prairie.