While they may not sleep in coffins, come out only at night or have an aversion to garlic, ticks are miniature, blood-thirsty vampires that are capable of transmitting some dangerous diseases to people and their pets. Though commonly confused as insects, ticks are classified as arachnids with close ties to spiders, scorpions and mites. There exists a diverse range of tick species throughout North America, but fortunately, only a handful of species pose a threat to people and pets. The American dog tick, the brown dog tick and the deer tick are the usual suspects when dealing with pet infestations and the tick-borne diseases that often accompany them.
Ticks have a body that's divided into two segments with the head and mouth located in the front segment and four pairs of legs supporting the rear segment. Tick size changes as it progresses through its four developmental stages: egg, larva, nymph and adult. In the larva stage, ticks are generally no larger than a grain of sand. Ticks in the nymph stage are about the size of a poppy seed and the fully-grown adult ticks can be compared to the size of an apple seed. As they feed, ticks become engorged and are easier to see.
Most ticks can survive up to two years at any given stage in their life cycle. Ticks require blood meals at least once during each active stage of their development, which includes the larva, nymph and adult stage, but have been known to survive prolonged periods of hunger. While the summer months are high season for newly hatched ticks, they're natural survivors built to withstand extreme temperatures and can, therefore, continue searching for hosts even during the frosty winter months.
Sensors located on the legs help ticks identify potential hosts for their blood meals. Since they're unable to fly or jump, ticks usually position themselves discreetly on logs, leaves, grass or other undergrowth and wait patiently until an unsuspecting person or animal passes by close enough for them to crawl right onto a mobile blood meal. Once they find a host, ticks typically crawl up until they find a cozy spot with thin skin to latch on to. Focus on areas around the head, neck and ears when checking for ticks on people or pets because that's where they're most likely to attach since the skin is softer and easier to penetrate.
Health Hazards to Humans
While not all ticks carry pathogens, many ticks can and do transmit a variety of bacterial and viral diseases including, but not limited to, Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, Tularemia and Babesiosis. Prompt removal of a feeding tick is critical in minimizing the risk of a tick-borne disease because the tick must be attached to the skin for at least 24 hours before any diseases can be successfully transmitted. Unfortunately, however, most people don't notice a tick bite until after the tick has successfully fed and fallen off, so it's important to check for ticks after spending time in grassy areas.
Prevention and Removal
The best way to avoid tick-borne diseases is proactive prevention through the use of tick-repellent clothing or sprays and careful inspection of the body after exposure to grassy or wooded areas where ticks are prevalent. If you do locate a tick attached to the skin, use tweezers to detach it as quickly as possible and keep the tick for identification in the event of an infection.