Chiggers Those Hellish Creatures

 By guest blogger, Vi Hummel Shaffer a 28-year veteran SAR/R K9 Handler specializing in K9 Forensic Human Remains Detection, an instructor, consultant, and speaker. She is the author of K9 Teams: Beyond the Basics of Search and Rescue and Recovery published by Brush Education.

Technically, chiggers are not insects – they are “arachnids” in the same family as spiders and ticks. Chiggers are also known by other names around the world: some call them berry bugs, red bugs, harvest mites, harvest bugs, harvest lice, mower’s mites, scrub-itch mites and others. Their scientific name is “trombiculidae mites” and there are approximately 30 species known to attack humans and other animals.

Where They Can Be Found       

Chiggers like areas of high humidity. They live in every country around the globe except in high elevations or where it is too hot or dry. Fortunately, North American chiggers don’t seem to be carriers of major diseases unlike in East Asia and the South Pacific. In those areas’ chiggers can cause scrub typhus also known as Japanese river disease. This disease can cause fever, muscle pain, headaches, rash, gastrointestinal problems and coughing.

Chiggers live in damp areas such as grass – like fields, lawns, forests, along the edges of wooded areas, swamps, bogs, rotten logs and stumps, overgrown briar patches and other moist habitats near lakes and streams. However, although chiggers may be heavily concentrated in one spot, they can be virtually absent nearby areas.

When   

Chiggers are most abundant when weeds, grass and other vegetation are substantial – usually in spring, summer and early fall when temperatures are in the 70s and 80s. But they avoid temperatures hotter than 99⁰F (37.2⁰C) and become inactive at temperatures below 60⁰F (15.5⁰C) and 42⁰F (5.556⁰C) will kill the biting ones.

Who and How They Attack    

Only the larvae (baby chiggers) are parasitic! Nymph and adult stages do not “bite”. While adult chiggers average about 1/60 of an inch long (0.4mm) the larvae are only 1/100 to less than 1/150 of an inch (10.15 to 0.3 mm) in diameter. They are bright red, hairy, have six legs (larva pictured). Adult and nymph chiggers have eight legs. Some species of chiggers are yellow or straw-colored. After the chigger eggs hatch into larvae they don’t move very far by themselves. They congregate in groups on grass blades, low plants and bushes and small clumps of soil. They attach themselves to small mammals, birds, reptiles, rodents and humans (their least preferable host) who walk through the infested vegetation.

Larvae mites have claws that help them latch on to the host they choose – such as the shoes, clothing, fur/hair – and skin of animals. Generally, they crawl around and explore the host, sometimes for several hours, seeking a safe place before they feed. Bites can happen on any area of the body but mainly where there are folds, wrinkles or where skin in thinnest and easier to penetrate. Those areas are commonly where clothing is tight – around ankles at the sock line, around the waist, near the groin, behind knees, under the armpits – inconvenient places like panty lines, bra straps and there have been cases where they have made their way on to “private parts.” Chiggers can leave hundreds of bites on a host in just one exposure!      

Prevention 

Other than staying out of chigger infested areas – which isn’t always possible – searchers and those working in the field should wear long-sleeved shirts, tall boots with their trousers tucked into their socks and a belt to minimize chiggers’ ability to connect directly to skin under a shirt.

Insect repellent is also suggested. But even repellents that specifically state they repel chiggers may only afford some degree of protection. Over-the-counter insect repellent effectiveness usually lasts for several hours before needing reapplication. Those containing DEET (N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide) may be applied directly to exposed skin but avoid getting it around or in the eyes. All repellents should be used according to label directions. If sunscreen is also used it should be applied first, rubbed into the skin and let absorb before using a repellent.

Long-lasting products such as those containing permethrin should only be sprayed on clothing (not on skin) and allowed to dry on the clothes for a couple of days before wearing. Permethrin sprays on clothing will remain effective even through a couple of washings. It is important to follow all label instructions. For double protection in heavily infested areas, it has been suggested to use repellent with DEET on your skin, and permethrin treated clothing. Sulphur powder applied to clothing has also been mentioned as providing some protection. But it has a horrible smell like rotten eggs.  

Author’s Note: Being the recipient of thousands of chigger bites through the years, and although trying various repellents, I have found one thing that has truly lessened them. Bounce Dryer Sheets! I have used them for years, shared them with others in the field, and they have helped! Take two fresh dryer sheets and wrap them around each ankle – that’s two sheets per ankle – under your socks. I also tuck some in my waistband and then sprayed myself with repellent. I don’t know if the “fragrance free” sheets or if any other brands work since I have only used the scented Bounce sheets.

“Bite”     

As previously stated, the larvae, not the adults or nymphs, are what does the damage. Chiggers don’t really bite nor do they “suck blood” or burrow into the skin. The larvae have tiny, sharp mouthparts that pierce the skin – poking a hole where they inject saliva containing digestive enzymes. Those enzymes break down and liquefy skin cells causing the human immune system to respond by hardening the cells all around the hole creating a hard feeding tube structure (referred to as a “stylostome”). It is through that tube that chiggers gain access to the digested skin cells where they constantly secrete saliva to liquefy new tissue. The larvae continue to feed sucking up the fluid until they are engorged. The enzymes are what causes the intense, relentless itching that begins several hours after the initial bite.

Because of the delay between the actual puncture and the itch, the host may not at first, associate it to their exposure to chiggers. The result of these bites will be clusters or groups of red pimple-like bumps or blisters whose itching usually peaks around 24 – 48 hours after the original piercing. Chigger larvae typically feed for three days before dropping off to find a place to digest their meal and molt into their next stage of life.

After Exposure: Clothing, shoes, gear (and dog) should be thoroughly brushed off immediately upon returning from the field. Once home, that clothing should be isolated from the rest of the laundry then washed in hot, soapy water. Boots should be left outside until cleaned. Dog bedding or vehicle kennel pads should also be cleaned.

A hot shower or bath should be taken as soon as possible with repeated soaping and vigorously scrubbing with a washcloth to dislodge any larvae that remain on the body. Although some chiggers may be forced off, the itching from the enzymes in the “tube” will still exist.

Some information sites suggest a cold shower should be taken, rather than hot, to help reduce inflammation from the bites and help relieve itching.

What to Do/Human Treatment (Note: This treatment information is a compilation of ideas from reputable sources. It is not medical advice.)

First of All, Don’t Scratch. Scratching can cause a secondary infection.

Don’t put clear fingernail polish on the bites to try to “suffocate” the chiggers. The chiggers may already be gone. Remember it is the enzymes already in your skin that cause the itching.

Don’t put bleach on the bites it doesn’t work! 

All itch relief remedies provide only temporary relief. The following suggestions are the most authoritative.

Unfortunately, No one remedy works equally well for most people and, even less encouraging it can take two to three weeks for chigger bites to heal!

Rubbing alcohol will burn when it touches a wound but it may have a little benefit and possibly kill any larvae if they are still attached.

Hot (or cold) showers and baths

Cold bath with a few scoops of colloidal oatmeal

Cold compresses

Applying wrapped ice to the bites

Over-the counter anti-itch creams, ointments and sprays.  If any contain hydrocortisone, consult with a doctor before using on children under the age of 12, or if pregnant or nursing.

Calamine or Pramoxine lotions

Menthol ointments (Vicks VapoRub)

Apple cider vinegar

Antihistamine pills such as Benadryl

Analgesics (pain relievers) may provide itch relief.

Ground up aspirin paste or baking soda paste applied to each bite.

Camphor Oil

In addition, antiseptic ointment will help prevent infection for bites that have been scraped by clothing or scratched.  For severe cases of chigger bites a physician should be consulted. Steroid shots may be prescribed to alleviate the itch and if infected, antibiotics may be needed.

Chiggers on Dogs

Although a dog’s fur can protect it from some chiggers they still latch on to other areas. Those less hair-covered places such as around the dog’s eyes, ears, legs and stomach are particularly vulnerable. Once on-board they will crawl around and also climb around down into the fur looking for a good, safe place to feed.

Chiggers or Fleas

Fleas prefer warm-blooded hairy animals. They can jump eight inches high and thirteen inches horizontally. Fleas feed on blood so there may be some “flea dirt” (dried blood from bites) present on the dog’s body as can be seen in this photo. There are usually three or four bites lined up in a row in an area. They are small red bumps with a halo-like ring around them.

Photo from PulpBits website

Chigger bites are in large, random clusters and look similar to small pimples, welts, blisters or hives.

Photo from University of San Francisco webpage

Sometimes chiggers can be identified by observing what looks look like paprika on the dog’s fur. Those almost microscopic reddish dots are larvae.

Indications of Chiggers on Dogs

Intense itching/scratching – typically starts three to six hours after exposure – that lasts for days is the most apparent indication. While not all dogs react with itching, some may develop an allergic reaction with hives or facial swelling.  As with humans, the itching enzymes will remain although the larvae will fall off after feeding for three or four days.

Clusters of Small, red crusty pimples, welts/bumps on skin which occur after several hours.

Red patches on exposed skin (can even be visible under their hair).

(If unsure of what the problem is, since other skin conditions may cause bumps, consult a veterinarian who can make the diagnosis.)

Treating Chigger Bites on Dogs

As previously mentioned, the dog should be brushed/wiped off immediately after returning from the field. It is recommended a soft cloth or vet-approved skin wipe be used around the sensitive areas. Chiggers can also infect a dog’s inner ear.

There are products/shampoos on the market to treat chigger bites on dogs but it is important to review them for safety and results. There are home-remedies (with mixture directions online) which may or may not be effective such as: bathing the dog in Epsom salts, a warm Colloidal Oat or Brewed Green Tea bath, Wrapped Ice Packs or Cold Compresses. Before using human treatments, a veterinarian should be consulted. The Vet may prescribe anti-parasitic sprays, dips, topical medication or suggest an antihistamine. In cases of severe infestation steroids may be prescribed. Remember continuous scratching can develop into bacterial infection which then would require antibiotics.

Prevention Veterinarian approved, dog medications for killing ticks and mites (Frontline, NexGard, Seresto, etc.) may help fend off chiggers. If chigger infested areas are within the dog’s home territory – Keep the dog away from them for about two weeks while those places are treated with pet-safe products.

Chiggers and the Ecosystem

After much research, due to curiosity about the “benefits” of chiggers, the most learned is that they feed on different foods at their different life stages. Larvae are parasitic while nymphs and adults feed only are various plant materials and smaller arthropods in the soil. Natural predators of chiggers (and other mites) are spiders, beetles, birds, lizards, centipedes, salamanders, certain species of ants and other small creatures which live in areas populated by chiggers.

Note from Susan: While this article applies to people and dogs, chiggers can bite cats and other animals as well.

Early childhood adversity lasts a lifetime

A study by scientists at theUniversity of Notre Dame on baboons has shown that early adverse conditions such as famine, abuse, neglect or the death of a parent in early childhood are not reversed by support in adulthood. They feel that things such as elevated stress hormones take a physiological toll on the body, and remain, even with a healthy, supportive relationships in adulthood.

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Because the subjects of the study were baboons, scientists measured life experience against levels of glucocorticoids (fGCs) — hormones that regulate physiological functions such as metabolism and immune function, and moderate the body’s response to stress. They found that the levels of fGC’s were 9% higher in subjects that had three or more adverse experiences and 21% higher than subjects that had no harsh experiences.

I have to wonder how this study relates to other animals. Does this mean that pets who are abused or experience harsh situations as youths, will not ever fully respond to kind treatment when they are adults? Will the stress always be with them? What comes to mind are children who are given up for adoption at birth and then suffer from attachment disorder. While further research is needed and on a wider subject base (other animals) this is important information to keep in mind when trying to rehabilitate abused pets. This may mean that failure is not the result of poor rehabilitation techniques, but is a result of the chemical changes in the subject.

Toxoplasma gondii from cats

It is fairly common knowledge that pregnant woman and people with compromised immune systems should avoid cleaning cat litter boxes to avoid getting toxoplasma gondii from cat feces. Toxoplasma can also be introduced to the body through the consumption of contaminated food and water.

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Leonardo Augusto, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology and lead author on the National Institutes of Health-funded study about toxoplasma has discovered the way the parasite takes control of a person’s cells and uses them to transport itself throughout the body.

This finding is important because once scientists discover how a parasite spreads, they can focus on a cure. This particular parasite infects about 1/3 of the world’s population making it a serious risk. What is especially dangerous about this parasite is that it can stay dormant in a body until the immune system weakens.

With the new understanding about how toxoplasma spreads through the body researchers are one step closer to finding a cure for this disease which can infect the brain as well as other organs.

Recent excavation shows pet cats over 1000 years ago

An excavation along the former “Silk Road” in Northern Kazakhstan revealed a full skeleton of a domestic cat. According to the findings by an international research team consisting of Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg (MLU), Korkyt-Ata Kyzylorda State University in Kazakhstan, the University of Tübingen and the Higher School of Economics in Russia show that the cat was a pet and cared for. They determined this because the cat was buried with care, it had a few broken bones that indicated it was treated and the most revealing of all, was the fact that the cat was older than one year. At the time the cat lived, cats were not typically kept as pets. Further analysis revealed that the cat had been fed meat by humans since it had lost all its teeth at the time of death.IMG_0507

Coronavirus structure clue to high infection rate

This is an interesting study and one that everyone should read. According to the study conducted by Gary Whittaker, professor of virology, is the senior author on the study at Cornell University, primates, cats, ferrets, and mink are the most susceptible to the human virus.

cat under sheets kitten

According to Whittaker, further research into feline coronaviruses might provide further clues into SARS-CoV-2 and coronaviruses in general.

Petting zoos pose a risk of infection for humans and animals

Professor Shiri Navon-Venezia of Ariel University, Ariel, Israel and colleagues conducted a study to see if there is a risk of infection to both humans and animals. “Extended spectrum beta-lactamase (ESBL) and AmpC-producing Enterobacteriaceae (AmpC-E), which are resistant to a number of commonly used antibiotics, have become a matter of great concern in both human and veterinary medicine, so understanding the likelihood of them colonising the animals is critical to evaluating the risk that may be posed to visitors.”

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The researchers also found that if an animal was treated with antibiotics it was seven times more likely to shed MDR bacteria.

Petting zoos are important for educational purposes as well as bringing happiness to both adults and children. However, it is important that petting zoos provide hand washing stations. People who go to petting zoos should wash their hands before and after interacting with the animals.

While this study focused on petting zoos, the same rules should apply to fairs where livestock is housed for show and competition. Many people pet the livestock or walk near their stalls. It is important to note that some of the bacteria comes from the animal droppings, so care should be taken to clean the bottom of shoes before you enter your car or home. If you wear flipflops or another type of open shoe such as a sandal, it would be wise to wash your feet as well. This is critical if you own pets.

If young children are allowed to interact with animals, be careful that they do not put their hands on their faces, in their mouth or handle food before washing thoroughly.

Do cats suffer from separation anxiety?

They most certainly do! Daiana de Souza Machado, from the Universidade Federal de Juiz de Fora, Brazil, and colleagues has conducted a survey to explore whether cats suffer from separation anxiety when left alone. Although this study needs further investigation, I can personally attest to the fact that more than one cat that I have owned has shown displeasure at being left alone for a weekend.

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Many people think that cats are fine being left alone for a few days while their owners go away. I have been guilty of leaving my cat alone while I went on an overnight trip. If the cat does not have a companion, such as another cat, they do miss their owners. In my case, although two cats that I owned did not like being left alone, they were not destructive. However, they were excited when I returned and vocalized their feelings. They made it clear that they were not happy being left behind.

In the survey that the researchers did, the cats that were left alone showed a variety of behaviors including excess vocalization and some destructive behavior.

Cats are much more social than many people realize. There are some cats that may not like to be cuddled and handled as much as others, but they still enjoy being near their owners and having the companionship.

Because cats sleep 12 – 16 hours a day, they may give the impression that they are not social since they are not as active as dogs. However, the hours that they are awake they crave companionship. And like many people, they sleep better knowing that their owners are home or that it is the normal routine.

So what is a solution if you must leave a cat overnight? If you know that this is going to be a common occurrence, you can own two cats instead of one. They will be company for each other. Another option is to have someone the cat knows and trusts visit the cat often or stay at your home while you are away.

Part of the problem is that cats do not like change in their lives. They are fine with the daily routine of their owners being gone for the day while at work, often sleeping the day away. Cats, just like dogs have an acute sense of time and recognize that on the weekends their owners are home most of the time. So when the owner goes away overnight, the cat will recognize that this is not the normal routine.

While more research needs to be done about separation anxiety in cats, it is important for cat owners to realize that their cats do love and miss them while they are away. Owners should take this into consideration when planning a weekend away or a vacation.

Pets may suffer stress during a crisis

A friend of mine who is not a dog trainer or behaviorist, suggested to me that dogs may suffer from stress due to the current pandemic. That was very insightful of him. The more I thought about it the more likely it seemed. Therefore I am addressing this possibility.

lily kitten

Anytime your routine changes and your pet, (mostly dogs and cats) notice the change, it can stress them. In the case of being home bound, as opposed to going on vacation or visiting, you are more likely to spend more quality time with your pet. This may mean more play time, more cuddle time, and more people at home collectively giving the pet attention. The pet will enjoy this and most likely be happy. However, some dogs and cats do not like the extra attention, especially from children, because they can suffer from over-stimulation. In some cases the pet will give subtle warnings asking to be left alone, but many people will not recognize them. The result may be a bite or a scratch. It is especially important to watch older pets who may not be physically able to handle the extra attention. If your pet does not seem willing to engage with you, leave him alone.

Family members may use the extra home time to groom their pets more frequently. In the case of older pets it is important to be aware that if they suffer from arthritis or a sore muscle from the extra exercise, brushing may be anywhere from uncomfortable to painful.

If the pet is younger and getting more exercise, watch their weight because they may need to eat a little bit more food since they are burning more calories. This is especially true for younger and physically fit older dogs.

We know that our pets feel and understand our emotions. As the pandemic continues, some members in the family may become more upset and stressful, your pet may react to this. They may cling to you or follow you around whereas they did not before. They may mope, or even avoid being as near to you as they normally were. They may pant more frequently, pace, or even tremble as their stress level rises along with yours. They may also react if the family members become short tempered or there is discord in the family. This is especially true if there are children in the home and they become irritated because they cannot see their friends or go out to play. Some pets are more protective of children and may react to their stress more than they would to an adult. A great activity for children is to read to the pet. It is calming for everyone.

Don’t forget that your pet does not understand the change in the family dynamics. They only understand what they see and experience. Therefore, it is equally important to watch how your pet reacts when you return to work or your normal schedule. At this time your pet may react to the sudden shift from having companionship 24/7 to being alone.

Rest assured that your pet will not forget what normal life was like, they do have the ability to recall the past, but again, they will not understand the change. More importantly, they may not like the change. It was certainly more fun having the family around all the time. To ease the shift back to normal, try to give your pet as much attention as you can when you first return to your regular routine. Gradually ease back to the normal routine that you had with your pet.

Fortunately our pets are very adaptable so many will not show any signs of stress due to the changes in our daily lives. But it certainly helps to keep a careful eye on your pet and to be aware that they know something is going on. Because they love us and care, they may react as they feel is necessary. Most important of all, show them understanding if they react in a way that becomes annoying to you.

Other circumstances that cause stress for a pet are:

Moving to a new home

Adding a new family member

Losing a family member

Changing the normal routine

Working more or less hours

Adding a new pet

Losing a pet in a multiple pet household

Remodeling

If your pet becomes too difficult to handle, feel free to contact a certified behavior consultant at www.iaabc.org Many of us can offer phone consults.

Senior citizens and pet ownership

A recent poll by Preeti Malani, M.D found some interesting facts about pet ownership. Pets included dogs, cats, birds, fish, and other types of pets. The physical and mental benefits were evident as has been indicated by other studies, however this study found some interesting information that families as well as an elderly person should consider when deciding if it is a good idea for an elderly family member to have a pet.

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We know that the positive reasons to have a pet include but are not limited to:

  • Companionship
  • Social connections
  • Source of enjoyment
  • Feeling of being needed and loved

Some of the negatives to consider are:

  • Difficulty to travel
  • Enjoying activities outside the home
  • Putting pet’s needs ahead of their own health needs
  • The cost of pet health care, especially for older pets
  • Owner health issues that make keeping a pet difficult
  • Owner or other family member’s allergies to the pet
  • A need to move into a facility that does not allow pets
  • The risk of falling because of a pet

In some cases family support will allow an elderly person to keep a pet. If the family agrees to take the pet and care for it if the elderly person must move to a care facility, that will ease the mind of the pet owner and allow them to keep the pet as long as possible.

If the pet owner can arrange for someone to care for a pet while on vacation, this will solve the vacation issue. The pet owner in most cases will be home more than they are away so watching a pet for them may not be a huge task.

If the pet lover cannot have a pet due to financial reasons, they may volunteer at a local shelter or offer to pet sit for friends. This will give them some quality time with pets without the expense. Another consideration if the person likes birds, is to feed the wild birds. A feeder near a window can be a source of joy with little responsibility. Many people enjoy bird-watching which is a year-round activity.

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A visitor to one of my bird feeders

Often if the family will “think outside of the box” a happy solution can be found for whatever difficulties may be present.