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Tick Identification and Lyme Disease

Updated on July 24, 2017
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I have studied insects for nearly forty years, and I have also done battle with my share of garden pests.

Tick Identification -- Deer Ticks and Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is a serious tick-borne illness, but it's only carried by the deer tick. Could you identify a deer tick if you saw one? And how do you tell a deer tick from a relatively harmless wood tick? This guide will help you tell one tick from another, which isn't always easy, since they are very small and tend to look alike.

What Is A Tick?

Ticks are small, hard-bodied arthropods of the Class Arachnida, which means they are related to spiders. They are not insects -- insects have six legs, while ticks and spiders have eight. Ticks feed on the blood of mammals and other animals, which means that some species will happily feed on you. Like mosquitoes, ticks carry several diseases, one of which, Lyme disease, is relatively difficult to diagnose in some cases. If left untreated, Lyme disease can have serious long-term effects. Deer ticks are the only species of tick known for sure to carry Lyme disease, so it makes sense to learn to tell if the little animal crawling on you after a hike in the woods is a deer tick, or something less threatening. This article will help with tick identification, so you know if the tick you found is a deer tick or not.

deer tick image:


Tick Identification -- Scientific Classification of Ticks

Ticks are arthropods, meaning they are distantly related to everything from butterflies to lobsters. They are more closely related to spiders, since they are in the class Arachnida along with spiders, scorpions, and harvestmen (also known as daddy longlegs). Within the class Arachnida, ticks, along with mites, make up the order Ixodida.

Ticks are basically divided into hardbodied and softbodied ticks (kind of like humans!). The "soft ticks" are in the family Argasidae and feed on birds -- they are basically never seen by most humans. It's the hard ticks, the Ixodidae, that you have to worry about. Within this order there are essentially four species of tick that you need to know about: the American dog tick, the brown dog tick, the lone star tick, and the deer tick. Let's look at each one of these and give you a start at tick identification.

Permethrin Keeps Ticks Away for Months

Clothes treated with Permethrin keep their tick repellant power through several washes. I use Permethrin for trips into the rain forests of Panama and believe me, it works!

Tick Identification -- American Dog Tick or Wood Tick


Most ticks you find will be a dog tick. They are large for ticks, about the size of an apple seed, and when they are "unfed" they are a medium brown color with brown legs. Females have a silvery patch behind the head. Males are smaller, and unlike the female do not expand much after feeding.

American dog ticks, as the name suggests, are often found on dogs, usually around the head. Like all ticks, American dog ticks suck blood from the host through sharp mouthparts that they insert just under the skin. When they are full, they drop to the ground.

These ticks are most active in the early to mid-summer. They can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia and possibly ehrlichiosis to humans, although such transmissions are relatively rare. If you do find a tick on you, and it has begun to feed, it is always a safe bet to call your doctor to let them know.

Tick Identification -- Lone Star Tick


This tick is found generally in the South, though its range could expand if climate change makes northern areas more hospitable. The lone star tick often has a white spot on its back, and it is smaller than the dog tick. This tick is sometimes mistaken for a deer tick, due to its small size (see below).

The lone star tick can transmit disease. In addition to the ones mentioned above for the American dog tick, the lone star tick may transmit bacteria related to those involved in Lyme disease -- research is still being done to understand the transmission of bacteria by ticks.

Tick Removal -- Fact and Fiction

Putting a hot match-head on the tick, covering it in butter, rubbing ice on the tick, or other "folk remedies" will likely NOT work. If you pull the tick out the wrong way, you can easily tear off the head and leave it embedded in your skin, and that has been known result in a nasty infection. The most reliable method is to use a tick-removel kit made specially for the purpose, but if you don't have one, you can use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick right behind its head. Do NOT grab it around the "belly" -- you could push infected fluid back into your system! Pull straight back, pulling the sharp mouthparts back the way they went in. KEPP THE TICK for identification purposes, and remember to wash your hands and the bite area with soap and water.

By NOAA ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Do you know the right way to remove a tick?

Do you know the right way to remove a tick?

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Tick Identification -- Brown Dog Tick

The brown dog tick is also called the kennel tick, because it can live indoors and feeds mainly on dogs. Brown dog ticks rarely bite humans, although it can happen. These ticks are not known vectors of human diseases, but their bite can make your pet really miserable. Sometimes several of these ticks can attach to one dog, and they can swell with blood to considerable size.

Tick Identification -- Deer Tick or Black-Legged Tick - Deer Ticks are SMALL and have BLACK LEGS

The deer tick, also known as the blacklegged tick, is responsible for transmitting Lyme Disease to humans. These are small ticks, about half the size of the American dog tick, and their nymphs -- immature forms that also feed on humans --are even smaller. Deer ticks live in northern forests. They feed mainly on deer and other forest mammals, but they will attach to a human if given the opportunity. Deer tick identification is helped by the fact that these ticks are (a) small, and (b) have black legs. If you found a tick and need to identify it, first look for these characteristics. If there is any doubt at all in your mind, you may want to bring the tick to your doctor so they can make a positive identification.

Lyme Disease -- Symptoms and Signs


This is the tell-tale sign of tick-borne Lyme Disease -- a red "bulls-eye" pattern that appears around the bite in the days following infection. If you suspect you have Lyme disease, don't hesitate to call your doctor! Lyme disease is very treatable in its early stages, but if left untreated can result in serious complications down the line.

Lyme Disease -- What You Need to Know

Field Guide to Ticks: Prevention And Treatment Of Lyme Disease And Other Ailments Caused By Ticks, Scorpions, Spiders, And Mites (Falcon Guide)
Field Guide to Ticks: Prevention And Treatment Of Lyme Disease And Other Ailments Caused By Ticks, Scorpions, Spiders, And Mites (Falcon Guide)

From the Back Cover

The complete handbook for preventing and treating ailments from dangerous bites

This clearly written and illustrated guide provides all the information you need to know about deer ticks, black widow spiders, brown recluse spiders, scorpions, chiggers, and other poisonous arachnids that can cause numerous ailments, including Lyme disease and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. The early detection and treatment of bites can prevent permanent damage to you, your family, and your pets. Updated with the most recent medical information on Lyme disease, this is the essential handbook for parents, gardeners, pet owners, campers, hikers, hunters, and anyone else who is vulnerable to ticks and other biting insects.



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