Tick Guide: Common Types Of Ticks In North America

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You’ve heard of bird watching… but what about tick watching? No, it’s not an actually hobby, but if you’re a dog owner, you should know the types of ticks in your neck of the woods.

If you’re a dog owner, the coming of spring doesn’t just signify the return of the sunny days and the smell of the flowers in the air. More than everyone, it seems, pet parents are aware that the loveliest season of the year comes with one seriously nasty side effect: ticks. The reason for this is that ticks are one of the worst parasites that target pets and the primary concern of any responsible dog owner should be protecting his four-legged companion from these bloodsuckers.

Even though they do not mind feeding on humans, ticks are a type of arachnid that commonly chooses cats and dogs as their host bodies. What does this mean? Ticks have mouth hooks that they use to attach themselves to your pet’s skin. Some even produce a glue-like substance that ensures that they stay firmly hooked while they feed. Then, they start snacking on your dog’s blood, and once they get their fill they move on to the next unsuspecting victim. Usually, this doesn’t last long: if undisturbed, ticks can feed for anywhere from 3 to 10 days. Rarely, the prolonged feeding on their blood can cause anemia in dogs, but that’s not the main reason why ticks are so dangerous for dogs.

These external parasites may be small but they carry the potential to transmit deadly diseases to your pet including Lyme disease , ehrlichiosis , canine babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever to name a few. The effects of these canine diseases range from fever and lameness to potentially fatal outcomes in severe cases. And all that because of one measly bite from an insect- that’s how dangerous ticks can be.

It’s clear that tick prevention is crucial, especially if your pet spends a lot of time outside, in nature- but even city pooches are not immune as ticks can live in urban environments, as well. To protect your pet from ticks you should administer a monthly topical flea and tick preventive – but you should also take the time to learn about the different ticks to which your dog may be exposed. Not all ticks transmit the same diseases and pose the same danger to your pet – knowing how to identify the one that bit your dog could make the difference between life and death for your best friend.

Types of Ticks Found in the U.S.

There are many different species of ticks found around the world- expert sources indicate that the number is close to 850 worldwide, with less than hundred of those species being common for the territories of the United States of America. Even though the amount of tick species is staggering when you come to think about it, the numbers dwindle when you consider only those that feed on dogs, and furthermore when you localize things. There is a fair number of dog ticks in the US, but these are the five species which are most common in North America.

Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis): Also known as the blacklegged tick, the deer tick is most commonly found in deciduous forest areas. These ticks are primarily distributed by whitetail deer and they can carry several different diseases in both the adult and nymph stages including Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis, and Babesiosis.

As larvae, these ticks are under 1 mm in length, so they’re about the size of a poppy seed, and they’ll have six legs. As nymphs, they’ll be anywhere from 1 to 2 mm in length, so about the size of a pinhead, and they’ll have eight legs. As adults, they’ll feature a flat body that fills up with blood after it feeds, and they’ll have eight legs. Generally, they’re brownish colored, but after they feed, they might be described as brown-red or rust colored. Male adults are brown, and unfed females are brown and red (females also appear to have a darker color after they feed). Also, adult males are small, measuring 3 to 5 mm, while females are 10 mm.

American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis): These ticks are most commonly found in grassy areas with little to no tree cover. American dog ticks feed on hosts of all sizes and they can carry Tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These ticks can survive up to 2 years with no host.

It is common for an adult American dog tick to bite a human, so take precautions to protect not only your pets but yourself as well. Female American dog ticks feature a big off-white marking set on a dark brown body, so that is one way that you can recognize this type of tick. The adult males feature a brown body and markings that are whitish to gray in color. In terms of their size, they can be 15 mm when engorged and 5 mm when not engorged. Also, while larvae will have six legs, nymphs and adults will have eight legs.

Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americamm): This type of tick is primarily found in areas of dense undergrowth and woodlands, particularly in animal resting areas. Lone star ticks can carry disease in both the adult and nymphal stages – diseases they can carry include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, “Stari” borreliosis, and Monocytic Ehrlichiosis.

In terms of their appearance, these ticks are quite easy to recognize. Adult females will have a white dot located on the center of their back, while males will feature white streaks or lines on the edges of the top part of the body. Just be aware that the markings on the male ticks won’t be as easy to see as those that are found on the females.

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Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus): These ticks are found all over the world and in all parts of the United States, though they are most heavily concentrated in the south. Brown dog ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever in all life stages but they can only transmit canine babesiosis and canine ehrlichiosis in the adult and nymphal stages.

Adults that haven’t fed will measure around 1/8” in length. After they’ve fed, males will be smaller than females, with females being around ½” in length. Also, adults will be reddish-brown in color, without any recognizable markings. And, after feeding, these ticks could take on a blue-gray color.

Wood Tick (Dermacentor andersoni): Also known as the Rocky Mountain wood tick, these ticks are primarily found in lightly wooded areas, grasslands, and shrub land. Wood ticks can transmit Colorado tick fever virus (CTFV) in all life stages to humans and they can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever to cats, dogs, and humans. These ticks also have a type of neurotoxin in their saliva which can lead to tick paralysis in both pets and humans.

When mature, a wood tick will have eight legs. Females will be around 5 mm long, while males will measure around 3.6 mm in length. After they feed, however, the females could grow up to 1.5 cm long. Both females and males will have grayish patterns that can help you recognize this type of tick, but males will have a mottled gray color along the back, while females will be nearly totally gray behind the head.

Always Keep an Eye Out for Ticks

With ticks, timing is the key. If you spot the tick on your pet’s fur quickly enough and manage to separate it from the skin, it could be all it takes to prevent the transmission of the disease. This is why vigorous observation and control are a must when you’re out and about with your pet. Whenever you spend time in the great outdoors with your furry friend, keep an eye out for ticks, and remove them right away if you find any on your pet’s body or on your own body. Removal of ticks is not as straightforward as you may think, though. The tick’s mouthparts could remain in your pet’s body if the extraction is not done properly which leaves room for further issues: it’s important to disinfect the area beforehand and pull the tick swiftly away from the body with tweezers.

In addition to being prepared in case of a bite, you can also research ways to protect your yard from these parasites. For example, there are pesticides that you can consider using. And you can also take steps like removing leaf litter, keeping your grass short by mowing frequently, and installing tall fencing to keep unwanted wildlife, such as deer, from entering your yard and dropping ticks into the area where you and your dogs spend time.

Talk to Your Vet About How to Protect Your Pet from Ticks

These types of ticks can be dangerous for both you and your pet. Not only are there many species of ticks found in the United States, but they are also widely distributed – ticks are active all year round, not just during the summer and fall. If you want to fully protect your pet from the deadly diseases listed above, you should see your veterinarian about a topical flea and tick preventive. It is always better to be safe than sorry and protecting your pet from ticks is no laughing matter.


Ticks (Tick Bites)

Tick facts

  • Ticks are scientifically classified as Arachnida (a classification that includes spiders). The fossil record suggests ticks have been around at least 90 million years.
  • Most tick bites do not transmit harmful microbes.
  • There are a variety of tick-borne diseases.
  • There is a wide range of symptoms that usually develop days to weeks after the tick bite. The symptoms depend on the particular microbe that is transmitted.
  • For all tick bites, local cleansing and antibiotic cream may be applied.
  • There are safe and effective methods for the removal of all types of ticks.

Tick Bites Disease Symptoms & Signs

Infection with a bacterium called a spirochete (Borrelia burgdorferi) causes Lyme disease, which infected ticks transmit to humans.

Patients with early stage Lyme disease symptoms have a characteristic rash (erythema migrans) accompanied by nonspecific symptoms (for example, fever, malaise, fatigue, headache, myalgia, and arthralgia). Lyme disease can usually be treated successfully with standard antibiotics.

What are ticks? What do ticks look like?

Ticks are small arachnids. Ticks require blood meals to complete their complex life cycles. Ticks are scientifically classified as Arachnida (a classification that includes spiders). The fossil record suggests ticks have been around at least 90 million years. There are over 800 species of ticks throughout the world, but only two families of ticks, Ixodidae (hard ticks) and Argasidae (soft ticks), are known to transmit diseases or illness to humans. Hard ticks have a scutum, or hard plate, on their back while soft ticks do not. Tickborne diseases occur worldwide.

Ticks have a complex life cycle that includes eggs, larvae, nymphs, and adult male and female ticks. The larvae, nymphs (also termed seed ticks), and adults all need blood meals. Usually, the female adult (hard tick) is the one causing the most bites as males usually die after mating. Ticks do not jump, fly, or drop. They simply reach out with their legs and grab or crawl onto a host. Although some larvae have preferred hosts, most ticks in the nymph or adult phase will attach a get a blood meal from several different kinds of animals, including humans. Except for a few species of larval ticks, the immature phases (larvae, nymphs) usually are even less selective about where they get a blood meal and are known to bite snakes, amphibians, birds, and mammals. Larvae are very small (about 1/32 of an inch with six legs), while nymphs are about 1/16-1/8 inch with eight legs and adults about 3/16-1/4 inch with eight legs. The complex life cycles are described in the last web citation below, and all of the web citations include pictures of various tick species. Although ticks will die eventually if they do not get a blood meal, many species can survive a year or more without a blood meal. The hard ticks tend to attach and feed for hours to days. Disease transmission usually occurs near the end of a meal, as the tick becomes full of blood. It may take hours before a hard tick transmits pathogens. Soft ticks usually feed for less than one hour. Disease transmission can occur in less than a minute with soft ticks. The bite of some of these soft ticks produces intensely painful reactions.

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Ticks are transmitters (vectors) of diseases for humans and animals. Ticks can transmit disease to many hosts; some cause economic harm such as Texas fever (bovine babesiosis) in cattle that can kill up to 90% of yearling cows. Ticks act as vectors when microbes in their saliva and mouth secretions get into the host’s skin and blood. Ticks were understood to be vectors of disease in the mid-1800s, and as investigative methods improved (microscopes, culture techniques, tissue staining), more information showed the wide variety of diseases that could be transmitted by ticks.

There are many common names for various ticks (for example, dog tick, deer tick, and African tick), and these names appear in the scientific literature, too. Most common names represent a genus of ticks. However, the common name «red» may be used by people to describe almost any tick that has had a blood meal (engorge with blood).

What are the risk factors for tick bites?

People who go through grassy areas and woods are at higher risk for tick bites, especially during the months from April through September. People who travel through such areas out of necessity or for recreation are at higher risk than those that protect themselves with appropriate clothing like long-sleeved shirts, long pants, and DEET-containing repellents (see prevention section below). In addition, people who have pets treated with flea and tick repellents decrease their risk of tick bites. People who live in areas surrounded by tall grassy areas or woods have a higher risk for tick bites, but the prevention section below describes ways to reduce risks.

What specialists treat tick bites?

Although most tick bites need no special treatment, occasionally such specialists in infectious disease, internal medicine, allergists, and/or individuals who have special training in treating such diseases as Lyme disease may be consulted.


What are tick bite symptoms and signs?

Unfortunately for the purpose of detection, the tick bite is usually painless and remains that way even after the tick stops the blood meal and falls off of the skin. Later, the bite site may develop

  • itching,
  • burning,
  • redness or red spot, and
  • rarely, localized intense pain like in the joints (some soft tick bites) in some individuals.

A few individuals may be sensitive or allergic to tick bites (tick saliva secretions) and develop

However, the majority of individuals with tick bites develop no symptoms, and many people do not remember getting bitten.

Some immediate symptoms that infrequently or rarely develop during or immediately after a tick bite initially may be flu-like and include

Individuals with these symptoms should be seen immediately by a doctor.

Recently, researchers have found that the tick bite (mainly the saliva produced by the lone star tick) has caused thousands of people to become allergic to red meat, termed a meat allergy (beef, pork, venison, and occasionally, milk). People can eat poultry (chicken, turkey) and have no allergic reactions. When they eat red meat, they develop swelling and hives. Some may develop anaphylaxis. The reaction is thought to be due to an alpha-gal antigen in the tick’s gut and/or saliva that stimulates an immune response that results in an allergic reaction when red meat is consumed. Occasionally, a tick bite may become red, swollen with red streaks; these are signs that the bite has become infected.

What diseases do ticks transmit (act as vectors) to humans?

  • Tularemia — Dermacentor variabilis (American dog tick; several species are also known as a wood tick) (hard tick) and Amblyomma americanum or lone star tick (hard tick) — vectors for Francisella tularensis bacteria
  • Anaplasmosis (human granulocytic anaplasmosis or HGA) — Ixodes species (hard tick) — vectors for Anaplasma phagocytophilum bacteria
  • Colorado tick fever — Dermacentor andersoni (hard tick) — vectors for Coltivirus, a RNA virus
  • Powassan encephalitis — Ixodes species and Dermacentor andersoni (both hard ticks) — vectors for Powassanencephalitis virus (Powassan virus), an RNA arbovirus
  • Babesiosis — Ixodes species (hard ticks) — vectors for Babesia, a protozoan
  • Ehrlichiosis — Amblyomma americanum or lone star ticks; see photo below with «lone star» mark on the dorsal surface (hard ticks) — vectors for Ehrlichia chaffeensis and Ehrlichia ewingii bacterial species
  • Rocky Mountain spotted fever — Dermacentor variabilis (American dog tick, see picture below) and Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni) (hard tick) are the primary vectors and occasionally the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus); Amblyomma cajennense (hard tick) is the vector in countries south of the U.S. — vectors for Rickettsia bacteria
  • Lyme disease — Ixodes species including deer ticks and white-footed mouse ticks, also known as black-legged ticks (hard ticks, see photo below) — vectors for Borrelia species of bacteria
  • Heartland virus disease — a viral disease caused by the Heartland virus discovered in 2012 and transmitted by Amblyomma americanum or lone star tick
  • Tick-borne relapsing fever — Ornithodoros moubata or African tick; see illustration below (soft tick) — vectors for Borrelia species of bacteria
  • Q fever — Rhipicephalus sanguineus, Dermacentor andersoni (see photo below), and Amblyomma americanum (all three are hard ticks) — vectors for Coxiella burnetii, a bacterium
  • Southern tick-associated rash illness (STARI) — Amblyomma americanum or lone star tick (hard tick) — infectious agent not yet identified according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)
  • Bourbon virus disease — This disease, caused by an RNA virus in the genus Thogotovirus, was first identified in 2014 in Kansas. This rare virus is likely tick vector-borne (tick species vector unknown but possibly lone star tick). A Missouri state park employee died from the infection in 2017.

This list shows that some ticks (for example, Ixodes) can transmit more than one type of pathogenic microbe (virus, bacteria, and protozoa). It is possible to transmit more than one pathogen in a single tick bite, although this rarely occurs. Outbreaks of tick-related illnesses follow seasonal patterns (about April to September in the U.S.) as ticks evolve from larvae to adults.

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What are the symptoms and signs of diseases transmitted by ticks?

There is a wide range of symptoms that usually develop days to weeks after the tick bite. The symptoms that become manifest depend on the particular microbe (pathogen) that is transmitted. For example, erythema migrans (a rash that is occasionally resembles a «bull’s eye») is often the first sign of Lyme disease transmitted by a tick bite. Other symptoms may seem flu-like and can include weakness, nausea, fever, vomiting, palpitations, rash, joint pain, swelling, numbness, and confusion. This is not an all-inclusive list, and other symptoms and signs can develop depending on the pathogen transmitted by the tick bite. More than one disease may be transmitted with tick bites; for example; some individuals may be infected with Lyme disease and babesiosis at the same time.

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How do health care professionals diagnose a tick bite?

No tests exist that either identify tick bites or the type of tick once the tick dislodges from the host’s body. However, doctors can examine the entire body, looking for ticks still attached, rashes, or signs of a tick-caused disease. If a tick is identified, the physician can better choose what additional tests should be done because some ticks are likely to transmit certain pathogens. Again, the web citations below have photos of ticks that can help distinguish ticks from biting insects, such as fleas, mites, or bedbugs.

Identification of the tick genus and species may help the physician determine what further tests may be scheduled. For example, blood tests for diseases such as Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, ehrlichiosis, and tularemia are generally not positive for weeks after the exposure, even though symptoms may be present. Knowledge of the type of tick that caused the bite can help narrow the physician’s possible diagnoses and even allow the physician to proceed with early therapy before a positive diagnosis is made.

Exams and tests should be done if an individual exhibits symptoms after a tick bite. Most tick bites do not have symptoms. If symptoms develop after a tick bite, the determination of which tests need to be performed can be optimized in consultation with an infectious-disease specialist.

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What is the treatment for a tick bite?

For all tick bites, local cleansing and antibiotic cream may be applied. If the bite area develops itching, preparations containing diphenhydramine (Benadryl) are recommended. These Benadryl compounds can be applied directly to the skin for itching or administered orally by tablets. This is usually the only treatment needed.

However, treatment of the pathogens that the tick may pass to a person depends on other factors, such as the type of tick, length of time of attachment to the host, diseases in the community, and symptoms developed by the patient. Specific treatment is based on the identity of the pathogen transmitted. For example, oral antibiotics may be prescribed for some patients with tick bites if they live in an area where Lyme disease is endemic. With more significant symptoms, antibiotics may need to be given intravenously and the patient may need to be hospitalized. The best approach to treatment is to diagnose which pathogen has been transmitted to the patient (for example, Borrelia species of bacteria) and then use the specific treatment recommended to reduce or kill the pathogen.


What is the best method of tick removal?

The following is a step-by-step method that is suggested for safe and effective removal of all types of ticks.

  1. Wear hand protection such as gloves so you don’t spread pathogens from the tick to your hands; use a fine-tipped forceps or tweezers to grab the tick at skin level.
  2. Grasp the tick firmly with the tweezers as close to the skin as possible without crushing the tick. Apply gentle pulling motion upward until the tick comes free. Twisting or turning the tick does not make removal easier because the mouthparts are barbed; in fact, such actions may break off the head and mouthparts, thereby increasing the chances for infection. The second web citation illustrates the proper removal of a tick.
  3. Once the tick is removed, don’t crush the tick because it may release pathogens. Consider keeping it in a tightly closed jar or taped to a piece of paper. Show the tick to the doctor if the person bitten becomes ill after the tick bite. Flush any removed ticks not kept for identification down the toilet or sink.
  4. The area of the bite should leave a small crater or indentation where the head and mouthparts were embedded. If portions of the head or mouthparts remain, they may be removed by a doctor.
  5. Thoroughly cleanse the bite area with soap and water or a mild disinfectant. Observe the area for several days for development of a reaction to the bite (rash or signs of infection). Apply antibiotic cream to the area as a precaution. Application of an antibiotic to the area may help prevent a local infection but usually does not affect the chance of developing diseases transmitted by the tick.
  6. Wash hands thoroughly after handling any tick or instruments that touched a tick. Clean and disinfect any instruments that were used.

To remove the tick without tweezers, there have been several suggestions that may or may not work. The following are two examples that individuals claim work well and cause the tick to release itself from the skin with all of its mouthparts intact:

  • Find the tick on the skin, and with your finger (preferably a gloved finger), rotate the body of the tick clockwise or counterclockwise for about a minute or so. This irritates the tick enough to cause it to let go of the skin and then the tick can be removed by simply touching the tick to scotch tape.
  • Put liquid soap on a cotton ball and cover the tick with the soaked cotton ball for about 15 to 20 seconds; the tick will supposedly release itself from the skin and get caught up in the cotton ball. You can dispose of the tick by placing it and the cotton ball in a sealable plastic bag.

These methods are mentioned because sometimes tweezers are not available; nonetheless, if these methods remove the tick along with its intact mouthparts, individuals should thoroughly wash their hands and disinfect any areas with which the tick may have come in contact.

Other ways to remove ticks, such as using a hot match head or painting the tick with nail polish, gasoline, or other materials, are not advised. Such treatments can cause the tick to release more fluids back into the bite and increases the chance to transmit disease before the tick releases itself from the skin.


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