If you enjoy spending time in nature during the summer, you are probably familiar with the threat of ticks. There are 80 species of ticks in the U.S. and over 850 worldwide.1 Approximately 12 of these species are associated with major health concerns. Ticks require an animal host to develop and rely on the blood of humans and animals to survive. This blood-feeding means that they can transmit many serious diseases to both humans and pets. Precautions should be taken during peak tick time to avoid bites. This ultimate guide to ticks will help you learn to identify the most common species, prevent exposures, and treat problems associated with ticks. We will also update you on the great Harris products that are available to help you take control of the tick population around your yards and homes.
Identifying Common Species of Ticks
Surprisingly, ticks are actually not classified as insects. Instead, they belong to a diverse group known as arthropods. Arthropods are invertebrate animals that have a visible exoskeleton, jointed legs, and a segmented body. More specifically, ticks are arachnids and are closely related to spiders, mites, and scorpions. Adult ticks have oval, flattened bodies with eight legs. Colors and markings differ depending on the species, but most are reddish-brown. Immature ticks can be difficult to identify because tick larvae (known as seed ticks) actually only have 6 legs, while nymphs and adults have the characteristic eight legs. When looking for a host, ticks do not jump, fly, or drop from trees. Instead, they will cling on to humans or animals as they pass by. Ticks normally live in wooded areas, tall grasses, shrubs, bushes, and even lawns. There are many species of ticks, but there are four main ones that tend to cause the majority of the problems.
Black-legged Ticks (AKA deer ticks)
Appearance: Black-legged female ticks are reddish-brown and have a dark brown plate, known as a scutum, on their backs below the head. They are only about ⅛ of an inch long. The males are generally slightly smaller and completely dark brown. These descriptions apply to unfed ticks that have not recently had a blood meal. When a tick has eaten, it will swell up like a balloon, much larger than its usual size, and will often appear grayish-blue to brown in color.
Range: The range of the black-legged tick spreads across the Northeast and Northern Midwest United States; The western black-legged tick is found in the Pacific Northwest and is very similar.
Diseases: Black-legged ticks are the primary vector of Lyme disease in the U.S, but they can also transmit human babesiosis, human anaplasmosis, and other diseases.
Common Hosts: They get the nickname of “deer tick” because they often parasitize white-tailed deer, but the most common source of infection is actually the white-footed mouse. They will also bite other animals like migratory birds, dogs, and humans.
American Dog Tick (AKA wood tick)
Appearance: The American dog tick is reddish-brown with markings on the back that are silver or white. Dog ticks often have ornate lighter colored markings on the scutum. They are larger than other common ticks and when engorged, females can be up to half an inch in size.
Range: The American dog tick is very common and widely distributed. You will find them in the East and Central United States, as well as western states like CA, OR, WA, and ID.
Diseases: Dog ticks commonly transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF) and Tularemia, but not Lyme disease.
Common Hosts: These ticks prefer dogs, but will also bite many different mammals like raccoons, coyotes, cattle, sheep, horses, and humans. The smaller larvae and nymphs are often found on white-footed mice and voles.
Attribution: By Sam Droege [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Lone Star Tick
Appearance: Lone star ticks are also reddish-brown and are 3-4 mm long. The females have an obvious white spot on the end of the scutum (plate on their backs). Males may have white markings around the edges, but they are typically very faint.
Range: This species of tick is found in the Southeastern United States and areas of the Northeast, particularly the states of TX, IN, IL, OH, PA, NJ, and NY.
Diseases: Lone Star ticks do not transmit Lyme disease, but can cause human monocytic ehrlichiosis (HME), as well as STARI (southern tick associated rash illness)
Common Hosts: Lone Star ticks are not picky and will use pretty much any mammal host like deer, birds, dogs, etc.
Brown Dog Tick
Appearance: Brown dog ticks are flat and reddish-brown. They are about ⅛ of an inch when unfed and can get up to ½” long when swollen after a blood meal.
Range: Brown dog ticks are found throughout the United States, but they are particularly prevalent in the South. This tick is unique because it is very common in yards, animal enclosures, and even homes. It can live and reproduce indoors and can be found on walls, baseboards, and other places throughout homes.
Diseases: This tick is less of a concern for humans, but has been known to transmit Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. However, it is a major concern for pet owners. Infestations can occur in dog kennels and homes where dogs live. It transmits canine ehrlichiosis and canine babesiosis.
Common Hosts: Dogs are the preferred hosts, and brown dog ticks can often be found behind their ears, and on their head and neck areas.
As mentioned previously, ticks are a huge problem because they spread diseases through their blood-feeding. These diseases range from mild to serious and can affect both humans and animals. Lyme disease if the most common tick-borne disease and causes the most problems in the United States. Let’s take a closer look at a few of the diseases to be on the lookout for.
Lyme disease is mostly spread by black-legged ticks and is most common during the summer months when immature nymphs are most active. Lyme disease is a major concern in forested areas of the Northeastern United States where ticks are particularly bad. Symptoms of Lyme disease include: a red rash that expands and can take on a bull’s-eye appearance in some cases, fatigue, joint or muscle pain, headaches, fever, and a stiff-neck. Lyme disease can be treated with antibiotics and good outcomes generally occur when caught quickly. More serious consequences can happen if the disease is not treated. Very similar to Lyme disease is STARI (Southern tick associated rash illness). It presents mostly the same symptoms, but is spread by the Lone star tick in the southern U.S.
Human Babesiosis is a malaria-like disease that is primarily carried by the white-footed mouse. Symptoms can range from the mild flu-like symptoms of fever, fatigue and chills, to more life-threatening symptoms like nausea, vomiting, respiratory distress, and an enlarged spleen.
Human Monocytic Ehrlichiosis (HME)
This disease is mostly spread by black-legged ticks in the Northeast and may result in fever, headaches, fatigue, vomiting, and muscle pain. The canine version of this disease is spread by the brown dog tick.
Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (RMSF)
The American dog tick is the primary culprit of (RMSF), and although it was discovered in the Rocky Mountain region, it is actually most prevalent in North Carolina and Oklahoma. RMSF is particularly common in children under the age of 15. Symptoms can include fever, headache, vomiting, muscle pain, and a rash. This rash is characterized by small, pink pustules that will eventually grow darker and create a spotted look that is common on palms, soles, and extremities. Antibiotic treatment is available and is crucial because, according to a report produced for the government of Connecticut, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever is fatal in 15-20% of cases that are left untreated.
Tularemia can be found throughout the United States and is spread by the American dog tick, the lone star tick, and the Rocky Mountain wood tick. Tularemia can be caused by a tick bite or by handling an infected animal, eating undercooked infected meat, or breathing in contaminated dust. Symptoms of tularemia may include an ulcer around the bite, fever, and possible swelling in local lymph nodes. Antibiotics are available for treatment.
Tick Bite Prevention
Tick bites can cause serious health problems, so prevention is key. The CDC has a lot of useful information regarding tick prevention. The following are some very specific strategies that you can employ to prevent tick bites on humans and animals.
- Mow lawns regularly
- Remove debris from yards including: leaves, brush, trash, and firewood that is near the home
- Create borders of wood chips, gravel, or mulch to separate your yard from wooded areas
- Cut down tall grasses and prune shrubs and bushes
- Keep areas of common use like swings, fire pits, and patios away from the edges of the grass
Control Host Animals
- Discourage deer from coming into your yard by planting deer resistant plants, using deer repellent, and putting up fencing if needed
- Keep bird feeders away from homes
- Control the rodent population around your yard
- Dogs are particularly susceptible to ticks, so use tick prevention products (dusts, collars, sprays, etc.) on your pets
- Talk to your vet about the best options
- Check pets for ticks daily and whenever they have gone through wooded areas
Limit Exposure to Ticks
- When outdoors in tick areas (especially during the summer months), stay in the center of paths and out of tall grasses and brush
- Wear light colored clothing
- Wear long pants and tuck them into your socks
- Wear closed-toe shoes and no sandals
- Use a 20% or more DEET tick repellent anytime you are hiking or working in the yard
- Spray clothing with a .5% permethrin repellent and let dry before wearing them
Perform Tick Checks
- Perform a full body tick check using a handheld mirror after being in high risk tick areas
- Pay particular attention to armpits, belly buttons, behind the knees, between legs, and in the hair
- Check clothing for ticks and wash and dry them in a hot dryer for one hour
- Check pets before they enter the home
- Examine all outdoor gear
- Shower or Bathe within 2 hours of returning home
- If you find a tick, use a pair of thin tweezers. Grasp the tick as close to the skin as you can and pull straight out.
- Do not try alternative methods like petroleum jelly to suffocate it or matches to make it back out, as they are not generally effective.
- After removal, save the tick and disinfect the area with alcohol. Make a note of where the tick was attached and the date
- Watch for signs or symptoms of a potential tick-borne illness
Pesticides and Repellents
The last part of tick management involves the use of pesticides and tick repellents. Acaricides are pesticides that will kill ticks and mites. Spraying tick pesticides around your yard will help reduce the number of ticks in the area and help to prevent the spread of tick-borne diseases. Repellents help prevent contact with ticks, but they will not reduce the overall number of ticks. Your specific situation will help you determine what form of control is needed.
If you have ticks in your home, they are most likely brown dog ticks that are known for reproducing indoors throughout the year. They are more common in warm areas and can cause major infestations. These ticks can be taken care of using Harris flea and tick killer. It can be sprayed outdoors and well as indoors on rugs, carpets, baseboards, and places where your pets spend a lot of time. It is safe, odorless, and non-staining. Follow all label directions when using pesticides.
As described throughout this ultimate guide, ticks can be a serious health hazard for both humans and pets, so precautions should be taken to avoid bites. Employing tick management strategies, including the use of pesticides, can greatly reduce your potential for tick related problems. With some basic knowledge about ticks and some great Harris products, tick control is within your reach. PF Harris is America’s oldest EPA-registered company, so you can feel confident using our products. Experience the Harris difference today!