What is a Tick?
Ticks are blood-feeding parasites that can pose a serious health risk to pets and humans impacting quality of life. Ticks have the ability to infect their hosts with a number of tick-borne diseases that can cause mild to severe illness or death. Proper tick biting preventative measures and removal techniques are the best way to avoid infection.
There are three tick species of medical significance because they are disease vectors: blacklegged tick (often called the deer tick), American dog tick, and the lone star tick. All three species are known as hard ticks because they possess a scutum (hard plate) on their upper surface behind their mouth parts. The scutum nearly covers the entire upper surface of male ticks and the front portion of the upper surface of female ticks. Soft ticks lack a scutum. Soft ticks are not pests to humans in Ohio.
What are Tick Life Cycles and Habits?
Ticks have a life cycle that includes the egg and three stages: six-legged larva, eight-legged nymph, and eight-legged adult. Adult ticks often have distinct characteristics and markings, but immature stages (larvae and nymphs) are entirely tan or brown and difficult to identify to species. All stages are round to oval shaped.
Ticks must consume blood at every stage to develop. Most species feed on a different type of host during the adult stage, with larvae and nymphs preferring smaller hosts. Nymphs become engorged, but they are much smaller than the adults. Adult female ticks greatly increase in size during feeding but adult males do not.
Important Tick Species in Ohio
American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
The American dog tick is the most commonly encountered species throughout Ohio.
Identification: Adults typically are brownish with light gray mottling on the scutum. Immatures are very small and rarely observed. The adult American dog tick is the largest tick in Ohio at approximately 3/16 of an inch (unfed females, fed, and unfed males). After feeding, the female is much larger (~5/8 of an inch long) and mostly gray.
Biology: American dog ticks prefer grassy areas along roads and paths, particularly next to woody or shrubby habitats. The immature stages of this species feed on rodents and other small mammals. Adult ticks feed on a wide variety of medium to large size mammals such as opossums, raccoons, groundhogs, dogs, and humans. Adults are most commonly encountered by humans and pets.
Adults are active during spring and summer, but they are most abundant from mid-April to mid-July. The adult tick waits on grass and weeds for a suitable host to brush against the vegetation. It then clings to the host’s fur or clothing and crawls upward seeking a place to attach and feed. Attached American dog ticks are frequently found on the scalp and hairline at the back of the neck.
Males obtain a small blood meal then mate with the female while she is attached to the host. The female feeds for seven to 11 days then drops to the ground and remains there for several days before laying approximately 6,000 eggs then dying shortly thereafter. The male remains on the host and continues to feed and mate for the remainder of the season until his death.
Diseases: The American dog tick is the primary transmitter of Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF). This species may also transmit tularemia. Toxins in the tick's injected saliva have been known to cause tick paralysis in dogs and humans. Immediate tick removal usually results in a quick recovery.
Blacklegged Tick or Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis)
The blacklegged tick recently has emerged as a serious pest in Ohio. This species has become much more common in the state since 2010, particularly in regions with the tick’s favored forest habitat. Maps showing Ohio counties with the blacklegged tick are available at odh.ohio.gov/.
Identification: The larval stage of the blacklegged tick is extremely tiny and nearly translucent, which makes it extremely difficult to see. The nymphal stage is translucent to slightly gray or brown. Adult males are slightly more than 1/16 inch long; unfed females are larger (~3/32-inch long). Both sexes are dark chocolate brown, but the rear half of the adult female is red or orange. Engorged adult females may appear gray. All comparable stages of the blacklegged tick are relatively smaller than other medically important ticks.
Biology: Blacklegged ticks are found mostly in or near forested areas. The immature stages feed on a wide range of hosts that occur in their woodland habitats. Adult blacklegged ticks feed on large mammals, most commonly white-tailed deer. Hence, some people call them “deer ticks.” Mating can occur on or off of a host. The female deposits approximately 2,000 eggs, all in one location.
All stages may attach to humans. They have no site attachment preference and will attach almost immediately upon encountering bare human skin.
One or more life stages may be active during every month of the year, depending on temperature. Because of this year-long activity, preventative measures should be taken outdoors where the tick occurs, even during autumn and winter.
Diseases: The blacklegged tick is the only vector of Lyme disease in the eastern and Midwestern United States. It is also the principal vector of human granulocytic anaplasmosis and babesiosis. This tick species may be co-infected with several disease agents, and some ticks may simultaneously infect a host with two or more of these diseases.
Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)
Lone star ticks recently have emerged as a serious pest, especially in southern Ohio.
Identification: The unfed adult female is about 3/16-inch long, brown, with a distinctive silvery spot on the upper surface of the scutum (hence the name ‘lone star'.). Once fed, the female is almost circular in shape and ~7/16-inch long. The male tick is about 3/16-inch long, brown, with whitish markings along the rear edge.
Biology: Lone star ticks are most commonly found in southern Ohio, but they are dispersed by migratory birds and therefore are reported in most Ohio counties. All stages readily feed on almost any bird or mammal, including humans. All stages can be found throughout the warm months of the year.
Shade is an important environmental factor for this species, which typically occurs in shady locations along roadsides and meadows and in grassy and shrubby habitats. All stages crawl to the tip of low growing vegetation and wait for a host to pass by. Larval lone star ticks, commonly referred to as seed ticks, may congregate in large numbers on vegetation. A person or pet unlucky enough to brush against this vegetation may become host to hundreds of larval ticks. The sticky side of masking tape can be used to collect crawling immatures.
Diseases: Lone star ticks are the primary transmitter of human monocytic ehrlichiosis and southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI). They also may transmit tularemia and Q-fever.
How Can I Prevent Tick Bites?
Here are some preventative measures that can be taken to reduce chances of humans and pets from being bitten by a harmful tick while outdoors:
- Wear long sleeves and long pants
- Where light colored clothing to make it easier to find ticks
- Tuck your shirt into your pants and your pants into your socks and boots
- Always know when and where to expect to encounter ticks (blacklegged/deer ticks are found in the woods; american dog ticks are found near roadsides, grassy areas, and meadows; lone star ticks are found near roadsides, grassy areas, and meadows primarily in southern Ohio)
- Use repellents according to the label
- Check yourself, family, and pets regularly and remove ticks immediately
- Avoid grassy and overgrown areas by staying on designated paths
- Use anti tick products on pets
- Ask your veterinarian about Lyme disease shots for your pets in areas with blacklegged ticks
- Create a tick-safe zone in your backyard for pets to avoid allowing them to roam freely
- Keep animals on leash during walks and inspect them for ticks following
To use tick repellent properly follow these step:
- Purchase a repellent that contains the chemical permethrin
- Apply the repellent to your boots and pants and allow to dry
- When entering the field, tuck your pants into your boots to prevent ticks from accessing your body
Once the permethrin has dried there is no odor and it should remain effective for several weeks before reapplication is needed.
Check out this printable brochure Be Tick Smart from ODH on preventing tick bites and infections.
Ticks can be submitted for species identification to the C. Wayne Ellett Plant and Pest Diagnostic Clinic (PPDC) at The Ohio State University. Information detailing how to submit a specimen can be obtained from the PPDC website at ppdc.osu.edu, your local county extension office OSU Mansfield Extension, or by contacting the PPDC: phone (614-292-5006), fax (614-466-9754), email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
How Do I Remove a Tick Properly?
If you encounter a tick on your body, a family members, or your pets, do not panic. Carefully, remove the tick using tweezers making sure to include the mouth parts. Monitor the health of the individual that has been bitten over the next 36-48 hours because transmission occurs between this time period.
Most people bitten by a tick will not get a disease. Not all ticks are infected with diseases. Ticks that are infected usually have to be attached to the host for several hours to several days to transmit diseases. Prompt removal of an attached tick will significantly reduce the risk of infection.