November 2008
From the State Vet's Office

A “Ticking” Bomb

Alabama State Veterinarian Dr. Tony Frazier came across an old tick dipping vat in Clay County.  Above is the marker for the site.    

I have never understood why, when God created living things, He saw fit to create ticks…or mosquitoes, gnats or sinuses for that matter. I can think of no redeeming quality the tick possesses. I do not like ticks. They are the original "blood-sucking parasites."

Not only that, but they carry both human and animal diseases that can be very serious or even fatal. I recall an event that occurred right after veterinary school while I was working at East Point Veterinary Hospital in Cullman. A client had brought in a puppy that had become covered with ticks in a very short period of time.

As I recall, there was probably not one square inch on the puppy’s body that didn’t have one of these disgusting parasites attached to it. I made every effort I could to save the little critter, but the battle was too much and the puppy succumbed. I hate ticks. So my interest was peeked recently when Agriculture Department Animal Health Technician Tim Shannon and I ran across an old tick dipping vat in Clay County.

I am not sure how I missed it. I realize there were days in veterinary school my mind drifted off, but I was completely unaware of the aggressive fever tick eradication program that existed in Alabama along about the first half of the 1900s. I suppose my focus has been on Brucellosis, BSE, tuberculosis and more recent diseases. However, I am sure there are some older farmers who were around back in the 1920s who will remember the "dipping vat wars."


  Dr. Frazier stands inside the old vat space.


Babesiosis or tick fever is caused by a protozoan carried by certain ticks, most notable the Boophilis species. This blood-parasite must live in an intermediate host, the tick, to complete its life-cycle. The disease, also known as Texas Tick Fever, Spanish Tick Fever and Poisonous Halitosis, became quite a problem in 1800s when cattle were driven out of South Texas to the rail heads in Kansas.

Because there was some natural immunity in the Texas Longhorns, the disease was not so dramatic. However, as the cattle were driven north, the local herds would become sick and as many as 30 percent of those cattle would die an agonizing death.

In the early 1900s a federal fever tick eradication program was begun. There was a law in the 1924 Code of Alabama that dealt with each county’s responsibility to providing dipping vats and everything else that included:

Section 2-15-292: Counties to provide and maintain required number of dipping vats and chemicals, etc., required therefore. The county commission of each county shall provide, build, repair and maintain the necessary number of concrete dipping vats with adequate pens and also provide the necessary chemicals, solutions and all other materials required for making, filling, replenishing and operating the required number of dipping vats. Each county shall furnish all the materials required for keeping the required vats filled with a standard tick-killing arsenical dip having the composition and strength as required by the regulations of the State Board of Agriculture and Industries. (Ag. Code 1927, §577; Code 1940, T. 2, §370.)

The arsenical (arsenic based) dips were very strong and very dangerous. If fact an article by Jim Cox, archived at the Clark County Democrat, told about a vat inspector who died as a result of arsenic exposure. (Anyone who has time and wants to read the excellent article can go on the internet at  and type the words "dipping vat" in the search box.)

It seems, in the areas involved, farmers had to have their livestock dipped on a regular basis or else. It was, to say the least, a controversial program with reports of farmers blowing up some vats with dynamite. As the previously mentioned law stated, counties were responsible for the burden of carrying out the program. Later, because of the financial stress that caused some counties, some state assistance was provided. The federal fever tick eradication program began in 1906 and ended in 1940 when the fever ticks were eradicated except for a permanent quarantine zone on the Texas-Mexico border.

In 2007, 100 years after the eradication program began, Texas expanded the quarantine zone because the fever ticks had been found outside the zone. It is a very real threat in Texas today. And with the volume of livestock exported to other states from Texas, it could become a concern to all of us. According to Dr. Bob Hillman, Texas State Veterinarian, it will require an all-out assault to combat the fever ticks. An additional problem about the fever tick is that, while they prefer cattle as their host, whitetail deer will serve their needs just fine. As I have often said, when you get a livestock disease in wildlife, you’re behind the eight ball. Fortunately, resources are presently being put into fighting the battle with the parasite in Texas. Ironically, in a July 4, 2008 press release, Dr. Hillman stated, "Texas has a ticking bomb in South Texas."

If anyone has first-hand knowledge or recollections about the tick eradication program, I would be interested to hear from you. My office number is 334-240-7253.