What Are They?

Ticks are parasitic pests that are not only an annoyance but a health concern. Able to transmit the bacterium that causes Lyme disease, ticks can threaten the health of humans and pets. The pests are common throughout the United States.

Greater than 500 species of ticks exist worldwide. Ticks are divided into two groups according to body type hard and soft ticks.

What Do They Look Like?

tick image

Like their spider relatives, adult ticks have four pairs of legs extending from the sides of their bodies.

Ticks are usually the size of a match-head or smaller. Due to their small size, ticks can be easily overlooked if attached to a person or pet. Before feeding, the pests appear somewhat flat. After consuming a blood meal and becoming engorged, ticks expand substantially and appear more bulbous. Females are usually somewhat larger than males. Size varies by life cycle stage, as nymphs may be as small as poppy seeds.

The color of ticks ranges from brown and reddish-brown to black. Adult female ticks belonging to certain species boast solitary silver or white spots on their backs.

Shield Marking
Ticks have shield-like plates on their backs, called scutums, which appear darker than the rest of the body.  Hard ticks, such as the American dog tick, feature a rigid shield directly behind the mouth and look like flattened seeds. Devoid of such a shield, soft ticks instead resemble large raisins. On females, the scutum only covers a portion of the body. The shield begins near the head and extends to about the mid-back. On males, it covers the entire dorsal

Ticks are oval shaped and consist of a head and a body. Classified as arachnids, ticks walk on four pairs of legs. Species common to the Mid-Atlantic have visible mouthparts, which are noticeable when viewing the pests from above. When they become engorged with blood, ticks look like the seeds of a plum.

Types of Ticks

wood tick / american dog tick
adult female dog tick
brown dog tick
deer tick
deer tick or black legged tick

There are a variety of tick species. Hard tick species include the brown dog tick, American dog tick, Rocky Mountain wood tick and the deer tick. Soft ticks species include the common fowl tick and the relapsing fever tick.

The soft tick is sac-like with no hard shield. Instead, they have a leathery exoskeleton for protection. The hard ticks have an exposed head and mouth, and a shield that covers most of the upper body.

Soft ticks are found in caves and nests, and can attach themselves to birds and bats. Hard ticks are found in deep woods with tall grasses and bushes, and will attach themselves to all mammals, including humans.

Where Do They Live?

Parasitic by nature, ticks primarily live in wooded areas or thick vegetation where they can easily wait and attach onto a passing host. Ticks frequently lurk within grasses or shrubs adjacent to paths heavily traveled by humans and other animals.

Ticks detect hosts by vibrational cues, odors, exhaled carbon dioxide, and even cast shadow patterns. Certain species of ticks, like the deer tick, are prone to drying out and consequently prefer to inhabit moist areas with high humidity. Other tick varieties, such as brown dog ticks, can survive indoors and often hide in cracks or under furniture in households with pets and other suitable hosts.

Contrary to popular belief, ticks cannot fly or jump. The parasites move solely by crawling, often preferring to travel up the body of a host before feeding.

Problems Caused by Ticks

Ticks are important vectors for a number of bacterial, viral, and fungal pathogens. Lyme disease represents the most serious of all tick-borne diseases. Other diseases ticks may transmit include ehrlichiosis, babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and tick-borne relapsing fever. Not all ticks carry infectious pathogens, and the majority of tick bites do not result in illness. However, the number of reported tick-borne diseases is on the rise, and individuals should take every precaution possible to avoid the pests.

How to Detect Ticks

Though able to be carried into the home, ticks rarely infest the home itself. Instead, the parasitic arthropods infest people, pets, and livestock. Some ticks drop from hosts after feeding and may be seen crawling on the floor.

In some cases, ticks may crawl to new hosts. Ticks do not repopulate inside the home because females prefer to lay their eggs in soil. Homes built in wooded areas or near fields may have ticks living in the foliage nearby

Inspect yourself or your pet after traveling through wooded or grassy landscapes.

Key areas to inspect include:

  • Waist
  • Groin area
  • Under the arms
  • Naval
  • Behind the knees
  • Scalp
  • In and behind the ears

What Do They Eat?

Ticks feed on the blood of amphibians, birds, mammals, and reptiles. Most common species of ticks, however, prefer warm-blooded mammals like deer, humans, and household pets such as dogs.

Immature ticks not yet fully developed often attach to and consume the blood of small animals like raccoons, rodents, and squirrels. When feeding, ticks latch onto a host firmly and slowly ingest the blood for up to several days, if undetected.

When ticks feed, they engorge with blood. Female ticks can grow to be almost 3 times their normal size when engorged. Males don’t grow as large as females when they feed. Some adult ticks can exist for two years without feeding.

At each stage, the tick goes through a transformation and then will feed when it finds its next host.

Reproduction & Life Cycle

The life cycle of most ticks includes four distinct stages egg, larva, nymph, and adult.   Ticks hatch from eggs as larvae and require blood meals for development into nymphs and, ultimately, adults. The tick life cycle can take up to three years to complete, depending on how easily the parasites can find a host animal at each phase. Resilient pests, ticks can live for two to three years without feeding.

Prevention Tips

Prevention is essential for avoiding tick-borne illness. The easiest precaution is to avoid places where ticks thrive, such as forests and overgrown grasslands, or to wear long clothing to cover exposed skin. To keep ticks from crawling under pants, tuck pant-legs into boots or socks. Additionally, if walking along a trail, stay centered on the path. Ticks lie in wait on bordering foliage and latch onto any living creature that brushes against the vegetation.

Tips for Removal

In the event that a tick becomes attached to you or your pet, remove it immediately, as early removal can prevent the possible transmission of disease. To remove a tick, use a pair of tweezers to carefully pull the blood-feeder off the skin. Start by grasping the portion nearest to the head and gently lifting upward. Work slowly and carefully to keep from crushing the body. Accidentally crushing the tick may cause it to release its internal pathogens into your body. If you want to identify the species, save it by placing it in a container with some rubbing alcohol. Take note of the date of your bite. If you experience symptoms later on, you may be able to compare it to the date to see if the tick bite is to blame.

Ticks usually can be found in the spring and fall months. They prefer to remain underground during the summer and winter.