Tick testing available at Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory

Dr. Sandra Bushmich, section head for Diagnostic Testing Services at the CVMDL, is identifying several tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and others that can cause illness. (Zhelun Lang/The Daily Campus)

With warmer weather on the rise, tick testing is available through the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory (CVMDL) at the University of Connecticut, according to a recent email sent out by UConn Extension.

“If you have a January thaw of four days or so, you’ll start seeing (ticks),” said Dr. Sandra Bushmich, the section head for Diagnostic Testing Services at the CVMDL. “Different ticks transmit different kinds of pathogens.”

Ticks submitted to the lab are identified for several tick-borne diseases, including Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and others that can cause illness in both animals and humans, according to the email.

The testing service has been in place for more than 20 years, Bushmich said, though over the years the number of pathogens tested for has expanded. The testing involves identifying species of the tick submitted and testing for pathogens such as Borrelia burgdorferi, which is the bacteria that causes Lyme disease, Buchmich said.

Tick-borne pathogens are transmitted to humans when a tick bites and feeds on a human, Bushmich said. The pathogen usually passes through the tick’s saliva as it feeds, she said.

“With Borrelia burgdorferi, it will actually grow in the midgut of the tick, and then it will migrate to the salivary glands,” Bushmich said. “As the tick bites the new host, they suck blood and then they excrete the saliva through their mouthparts and into the wound.”

The transmission isn’t immediate, Bushmich said, which is why removing a tick from the body as soon as possible is important in avoiding infection.

“That whole process can take 12 to 24 hours, which is why you have that window of time to remove the tick safely, before it can infect you,” Bushmich said.   

Ticks found in Connecticut that can carry pathogens include dog ticks, the Lonestar ticks and deer ticks, Bushmich said, with deer ticks carrying Borrelia burgdorferi.

Ticks are submitted to the CVMDL through the mail, a courier or at the laboratory's office, Bushmich said. Clients fill out a form with the history of the tick, where it has found, who it has bitten and other information. Rush testing can be performed as well, Bushmich said, if results are needed quickly such as in the case of a young child being bitten.

After the tick is submitted, the tick is sent to a serology lab for identification and analyzed for the level of engorgement, which can give pathologists an idea of how long the tick has been attached to the host, Bushmich said.

The tick is then ground up in order to expose the DNA within, and the DNA is extracted for testing, Bushmich said. The extracted DNA is then sent to the molecular diagnostics section, Buchmich said.

“There’s a test called real-time PCR (Polymerase Chain Reaction), and you’re able to specifically detect the DNA of Borrelia burgdorferi (within the sample),” Bushmich said. “It’s fast, and there’s fewer contamination issues.”  

Different regions of Connecticut have greater incidences of tick bites, Bushmich said, especially those with wooded areas, such as Bridgeport, along the shoreline or in Lyme county.

Approximately 40 percent of all adult ticks in the Storrs area carry Borrelia burgdorferi, Bushmich said, and can pass on the bacteria to dogs, horses and humans. Symptoms of Lyme disease in all animals include lameness, large joint pain, behavioral changes and a low grade fever, she said.

In humans, symptoms within the first month can include headaches, a fever and bullseye-like rash radiating from the origin of the bite, which can be harder to to detect on certain parts of the body or on darker skin, Bushmich said.

Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics and should be addressed as soon as possible, preferably within the first month, Bushmich said.

“If you wait, it’s less easy to get rid of,” she said. “If the person’s not treated, then you’re still infected (and) you’ll have other symptoms.”

Long-term Lyme disease symptoms can include numbness, droopiness of the face, cognitive dysfunction and memory issues and even arthritis if left untreated for over five to six months, Bushmich said.

Tick bites, and Lyme disease, can be avoided in the warmer months by checking for ticks thoroughly and often, Bushmich said.

“The best thing to do is a daily tick check if the ground is not frozen,” Bushmich said. “Look under the armpits, all the nooks and crannies. If you see them, take them off right away and save it. We can test it long after they’ve been dried out. If you check every night before you go to bed, you’re very unlikely to have them on long enough to transmit the infection.”

If you have a tick that you would like to have tested, contact the Connecticut Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at 860-486-3738 or visit their website for more information. The standard tick-testing fee is $50.


Marlese Lessing is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at marlese.lessing@uconn.edu. She tweets @marlese_lessing.