What You Must Know About Controlling Ticks in Your Yard
Yardwork may reduce the number of ticks on your property but could leave you more exposed to bites
If you live in an area where ticks are common, part of your usual yard care routine might involve measures to reduce the number of ticks on your property. Public health organizations including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advise mowing regularly, clearing leaves and brush, creating a dry mulch barrier between your yard and any forest edge, and other tactics to make your yard an unfriendly environment for ticks.
Yet these anti-tick strategies may have an unintended consequence, according to recent research from the Cary Institute, an independent environmental research organization. An analysis of 94 studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology found that these measures, which also include trimming branches, were associated with an increased risk of contracting a tick-borne illness.
Sound counterintuitive? Ilya Fischhoff, Ph.D., a disease ecologist and postdoctoral associate at the Cary Institute and lead author of the analysis, says human behavior might help explain the result. “I think it’s because doing these things exposes people to ticks,” he says. Getting rid of tick habitats means putting yourself in the path of ticks hiding there.
Here, we delve deeper into what puts you at risk for tick bites and what you need to know about controlling ticks in your yard safely.
Research Reveals Tick Risks
Researchers evaluated existing studies to find out which risk factors correlated with the risk of getting bitten by a blacklegged tick (deer tick) or getting a disease spread by one, such as Lyme disease.
Limits of the Research
Because this analysis only looked at existing studies, there may be other important risk factors that weren’t revealed due to a lack of research.
Another important caveat is that the analysis detected only correlations; it couldn’t reveal causation. So explanations of why certain risk factors affected the risk of tick bites or disease are merely hypotheses.
Still, Fischhoff thinks the explanation for why anti-tick yard modifications would lead to a greater risk of disease is highly plausible. “You would need more data to test the hypothesis that it’s because doing this landscaping exposes people to ticks,” he says. “But that seems like a pretty reasonable hypothesis.”
Note, too, that this research only evaluated risk related to blacklegged ticks and Western blacklegged ticks. The results may have been different if the researchers had focused on other species of ticks that are more common in certain areas of the U.S.
Should You Stop Modifying Your Yard Against Ticks?
The answer isn’t clear. CR has previously written about advice from the CDC and other experts about how to modify your yard to protect against ticks.
Now, Fischhoff says that he’d hesitate to use the methods evaluated in this study—clearing brush, trimming branches, and creating a dry edge barrier—without more evidence. But he’d like to see more research about the effect of various anti-tick yard modifications, especially looking at each strategy to find out what kind of effect it has.
Connally agrees that more study is needed. “What I take away from this paper is that we really don’t fully understand the specific ways that people use their backyards that lead them to encounter ticks,” she says.
Until more research is conducted, Connally says that instead of forgetting about yard modification, people should interpret this study as a reminder to take personal protection against ticks seriously, not only when out in the woods but also when spending time in the backyard.
“When spending time outside in the yard, people should be thinking about personal protective measures,” Connally says. “Particularly when the activities in the yard include some sort of yardwork, whether it’s clearing brush or mowing the lawn or working in the garden.”
One piece of good news from the new analysis: Fischhoff’s team found that taking personal protective measures, including using insect repellent and permethrin-treated clothing, wearing long sleeves and pants and light colored clothing, bathing or showering shortly after being outside, and doing tick checks were linked to a reduced risk of tick-borne disease. The effects were especially strong for bathing or showering and tick checks.
So if you live in an area where ticks are common, when you head out to do yardwork, whether you’re planning to make anti-tick changes or simply doing routine maintenance, be sure to arm yourself against ticks. Use an EPA-registered insect repellent (see a few top-rated picks from CR below) and consider dressing in permethrin-treated clothing. When you’re finished, take a shower, do a thorough tick check, and remove any ticks that have attached themselves to you. (Here’s how.)
How to Keep Ticks out of Your Yard
Ticks love tall grass and cool, damp areas. On the "Consumer 101" TV show, Consumer Reports expert Catherine Roberts explains how to make your yard less inviting to these pests.