What Is It?
Also known as the black-legged tick, the deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) is widely distributed throughout the eastern United States. Named for their preference for using white-tailed deer as host animals, deer ticks ambush potential hosts by waiting in vegetation and latching on to unsuspecting animals as they pass.
What Do They Look Like?
Adult deer ticks typically only reach up to 1/8 of an inch in length, though they appear larger after ingesting a blood meal. Males appear entirely black or dark brown, while females possess a dark red abdomen and a black head. As their alternate name suggests, both sexes have black legs.
Like all arachnids, deer ticks possess eight legs as adults. However, larvae have only six legs. Additionally, some deer ticks lack eyes and have folds near the abdomen called festoons.
What Do They Eat?
Deer ticks feed on blood from a host animal. Larvae and nymphal ticks parasitize smaller mammals, such as the white-footed mouse, before moving on to larger hosts, such as raccoons. As adults, female deer ticks feed on much larger animals, including the white-tail deer for which the pests are named. Adult males do not feed at all.
Deer ticks are considered three-host ticks, as each stage of development requires a blood meal from a different host.
The life cycle begins when females lay eggs early in the spring.
Upon hatching in the early summer months, larvae emerge and attach to a variety of avian or mammalian hosts, feed for three to five days, then fall off and overwinter until the following spring. The larvae then molt into nymphs, attach to a new host, and feed for another four days or so before disengaging from the host and molting into an adult.
Adult ticks become active in the early fall months and feed on a primary host for up to seven days. Deer ticks mate either on the host animal or on vegetation, and the male dies soon after. Females may live for two years, though the lifespan depends on the rate of reproduction, as female deer ticks die after laying eggs.
Deer ticks often hide in grass that reaches above the height of the ankle. Immediately examine your body after being in wooded lots, high brush, and areas of thick vegetation. Overwintering deer ticks may become active on unseasonably warm days.
How Harmful Are They?
Deer ticks are known vectors of Lyme disease, human granulocytic anaplasmosis (HGA), and babesiosis. HGA may lead to severe respiratory and renal failure and leaves the body vulnerable to other infections, while babesiosis may eventually result in hemolytic anemia, which affects red blood cell counts.
Arguably the most serious problem caused by deer ticks, however, is Lyme disease, which triggers fatigue and various neurological issues. The infectious disease usually becomes noticeable with the development of rashes near the initial bite site. When left unchecked, Lyme disease may cause chronic encephalomyelitis, which can eventually lead to cognitive impairment, facial palsy, and balance issues.
Signs of Infestation
The most common signs of a tick infestation are visual confirmation of their presence or the medical effects of a tick bite. As pets regularly bring ticks into the home, checking domesticated animals for ticks may prove beneficial. Also watch for excessive scratching or any other change in behavior when a pet returns from a wooded area or a similar location where deer ticks like to hide and wait for a host.
To successfully prevent deer tick infestations, focus on modifying the surrounding habitat and eliminating the potential for coming into contact with host animals in the wild. Installing proper fencing around gardens and other vegetative areas that may entice deer and other host animals greatly reduces the chance of tick infestations. Additionally, cutting back high grasses and other foliage may eliminate ambush points for the invasive arachnids, as well as reduce hiding and nesting places for smaller mammals carrying tick larvae. When working or walking in areas where deer ticks may be most prevalent, wear multiple layers of clothing, pull your socks over your pant cuffs, and consistently check your clothes and body for the pesky parasites.
Tips for Removal
Removing an attached deer tick can be challenging and problematic. Simply crushing the pest may cause contaminated bodily fluids to rush back into the victim. Using tweezers or forceps to remove the entire tick, including the embedded mouth parts, typically proves necessary.
Large-scale removal of tick infestations may be achieved with sprays. As chemical treatments can be tricky to apply and potentially hazardous for untrained individuals to handle, contacting a knowledgeable pest control professional is recommended.