Ticks, ID, control

Black legged tick

Ticks have been in the news a bit lately; it seems like tick populations are up in many states.  There are also some rare tick-borne diseases that are popping up more frequently.  In a well-maintained yard and garden gardeners aren’t very likely to experience ticks.  However, if you garden near woody, brushy areas or unmown fields, are clearing land or like to walk in wilder areas you may have a dreaded tick encounter.

There is at least one species of ticks in every US state. Ticks won’t however, be in every area of a state. While every tick doesn’t carry disease some tick bites can infect you with some very serious or deadly diseases.  Lyme disease is the disease people hear about the most and probably the most common disease ticks carry.  Lyme disease can have serious long-term effects on people.  But there are many more serious diseases ticks carry.

Most tick-borne diseases have no cure, supportive care is needed to prevent complications.  Tick diseases commonly begin with flu like symptoms and fever and progress to affect various organs.  Encephalitis and arthritic pain are common in many of the diseases.  Some cause anemia or cardiac problems.  Rashes of various forms, including the famous bulls eye rash of Lyme disease, are associated with many tick-borne diseases. Deaths can occur with many tick diseases. 

Tick-borne diseases can be hard to diagnose, especially if the sick person doesn’t know they were bitten by a tick.  Because a lot of tick diseases require the tick to feed for a while on a human to transmit the disease, many people do know when they get a potentially bad tick bite.  If you find a tick that is engorged, full of your blood, on you, it’s a good idea to keep the tick and have it identified.  If you get any flu like symptoms or a rash shortly after the encounter notify your doctor you were bitten by a tick. 

To save the tick for identification, which requires an experienced, trained person, put them in a jar of alcohol after removing them (see below) or freeze them in a plastic bag.  Call your local health department or your County Extension office to find out where to take or send a tick for identification. Tell them if you were traveling when you acquired the tick and where.  Identifying the tick and knowing the area the tick came from can help narrow down what diseases the tick may be carrying.

Here are some of the diseases ticks cause in the US and the species of ticks that transmit them.  Not all species of ticks and or all of these diseases are found in every state.  Some state will have several species of ticks.  The brown dog tick is found in every state.

Anaplasmosis, blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus)
Babesiosis- blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis)
Borrelia mayonii blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis)
Borrelia miyamotoi- blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis)
Colorado tick fever -Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni).
Ehrlichiosis- lone star tick (Ambylomma americanum)
Heartland virus infection- lone star tick (Ambylomma americanum)
Lyme disease blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and western blacklegged tick (Ixodes pacificus).  30,000 cases a year. 
Powassan disease blacklegged tick (Ixodes scapularis) and the groundhog tick (Ixodes cookei).
Rickettsia parkeri rickettsiosis - Gulf Coast tick (Amblyomma maculatum).
Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF) American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), Rocky Mountain wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni), and the brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sangunineus).
STARI (Southern tick-associated rash illness) the lone star tick (Ambylomma americanum).
Tickborne relapsing fever (TBRF)
Tularemia- dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis), the wood tick (Dermacentor andersoni), and the lone star tick (Amblyomma americanum).
364D rickettsiosis (Rickettsia phillipi, proposed) the Pacific Coast tick (Dermacentor occidentalis). This is a new disease that has been found in California.

The lone star tick, Amblyomma americanum also causes an unusual allergic reaction to red meat.  After people have been bitten by this tick they may have a severe allergic reaction when they eat red meat.
Lone star tick
Removing a tick

The CDC recommends removing ticks as soon as possible, the longer a tick stays on you the more likely it will transmit a disease.  They also recommend that you do not use Vaseline, nail polish or similar products to smother them or use a lighter or fire on the tick. Smothering takes too long and fire is too dangerous.

Do not yank the tick out quickly, if you break it in two and leave the head imbedded it can cause an infection.  Use a pair of tweezers and grab the ticks head as close to the skin as you can.  Pull up with a slow steady movement.  You can buy a special tick removal tool that looks like a little spoon with a notch in it.  If you frequently need to remove ticks, you may want one. After removing a tick clean the area with alcohol or soap and water.

If you do break off a tick head in your skin flush the area with alcohol and then use some antibiotic cream.  Dispose of pulled ticks in a cup of alcohol, a jar with a tight lid or flush them down the toilet. 

The tick life cycle and habits

Ticks have 4 life stages, egg, larvae, nymph and adult. Larval ticks are very small and only have 6 legs.  Nymph ticks have 8 legs and look like small adult ticks.  Adult ticks are the largest and are able to mate and produce eggs. Eggs are generally laid on the ground by female ticks in the thousands. 

After hatching ticks require blood meals at every stage of life.  Some ticks will feed on the same species of animal throughout their life stages; others require different species of animals at different stages.  Ticks can feed on any warm-blooded creature including birds and they also feed on reptiles and amphibians in some species, but they have their preferred species. Humans aren’t a preferred tick food but they readily accept us to feed on in the adult and in some species, nymph stages.

Ticks don’t jump like fleas and they don’t fly.  What they do is climb up on grass or weeds and hold out their first pair of legs to grasp any animal passing by.  They sense movement, animal body heat or breath, vibrations and other things depending on the tick species to find their preferred host species. When they haven’t eaten in a while ticks can be very small and hard to see, especially in the larval stage.  They are the size of a period in this article.

When it finds a body to feed on ticks may attach quickly in some species, or they may crawl on the host looking for a good spot.  They seem to like hairy spots with thin skin.  It can take 10 minutes to 2 hours for a tick to firmly attach itself and begin feeding.  The tick inserts a feeding tube into the victim’s skin and then produces a glue-like substance to keep it there.  Some ticks also have barbs on the tube. The front of the tick head will seem to be buried in the skin when it’s attached.  The salvia of the tick is injected into the wound and this has an anesthetic in it which keeps the host from feeling the tick feeding.

Ticks can feed for several hours or even days.  As they fill with blood they get larger and easier to see.  Some adult engorged ticks will be as big as a penny.  When full they drop off, maybe lay some eggs, digest their meal and then look for another one.  The longer a tick stays on you feeding the more likely you will be infected with a disease so it’s important to remove them as soon as possible.
Dog tick before and after feeding, notice color change
wikimedia commons
Treating the yard and garden

A product that kills ticks is called an acaricide.  There are several on the market. Read and follow the label directions carefully and only use them if you know ticks are on your property.  Many of these products are harmful to birds and aquatic animals and can harm beneficial insects too.  They should only be used near human habitation.  A professional pest control company often uses high pressure sprayers that penetrate debris and weeds for better coverage.

Many people recommend getting guinea hens (a type of poultry) because they like to eat ticks.  They do eat ticks but won’t get them all.  Guineas roaming in brushy areas where ticks are found are also food for other animals.  They are also very noisy and your neighbors may prefer the ticks.  Chickens and ducks will also eat ticks when they find them, but be aware that ticks can also feed on birds too.  Poultry alone is rarely sufficient to completely control ticks.

Opossums and ticks

You may have read on the internet that opossums help kill ticks.  This is true to some extent.  Opossums groom themselves like cats and eat ticks that attach to them; scientists estimate they may eat 5,000 ticks a week in heavily infested areas.  They don’t hunt for ticks, but it may be a good idea to let them live around your property if they aren’t bothering anything else so they can act as a tick magnet.

But just like guinea hens don’t count on a possum population to totally control ticks.  And there may be other reasons that discouraging possums would be wise.  Horse owners know opossums can transmit diseases to horses so they often eliminate them from barns.

Keep deer and mice away

Feeding the deer is a good way to bring ticks on your property.  Deer are excellent transporters of ticks.  Anywhere deer congregate should be avoided and walking on narrow trails deer make through fields is also a good way to get ticks.

Mice are the hosts for some types of ticks in their early life stages.  Clean up any areas that attract and hide mice and try to eliminate them from your home and yard. You can buy tubes filled with treated nesting material for mice.  It doesn’t kill the mice but when they carry the nesting material away and sleep in it the ticks are killed. One such product is Damminix Tick Tubes.

Treat dogs/ pets with flea products that also repel and or kill ticks

Dogs can get many of the same diseases from ticks that people do.  And dogs are the frequent way ticks are brought inside or to the yard after they have been exploring in the woods and fields.  Check your dog after every field trip.  If you live in tick infested areas use one of the many products that kill and repel ticks on your dogs from early spring through fall.  If your dog gets sick after being fed on by ticks see a vet.

Other pets can get ticks too.  Don’t use dog tick repellants on other animals like cats because many are toxic to other species. Check with a vet before applying tick products to any animal. Cats usually groom them off themselves.  Pet tortoises have been known to pick up ticks.  Rabbits also get them.

Horses on pasture often get ticks and can get several diseases from them. Some fly repellants also repel ticks.  Remove ticks found on horses like you would for a human.  Check with a vet if horses seem ill after being bitten by ticks.

Keeping ticks off you

Use a repellent that contains 20 percent or more DEET, picaridin, or IR3535 on your exposed skin.  If you expect to run into ticks do not take risks with home and “organic” remedies.  These products also protect you from mosquitoes and biting flies.

You can also treat clothing and things like camping gear, with a product containing 0.5% permethrin.  Don’t use this on your skin.   These products remain through several washings.  You can also buy pre-treated clothing and some of those items will repel ticks for a long time. Permethrin must be applied to clothing 48 hours before it’s worn and allowed to dry.  Using permethrin on shoes and other clothing reduces your chances of getting ticks by about 70% according to research.

Try to stay on mowed/cleared paths, in the middle of them preferably,  and out of deep grass and brush.  Around the home keep the lawn short and brush and weeds cleared away.  Pick up any litter or rubbish that can hide mice and or ticks. Make a 3 feet barrier of wood chips or gravel between wooded or brushy areas and the lawn or garden.

Wear long pants, socks and shoes when working or walking in areas where ticks may be. Tuck pants into socks or boots.  If you are bending down pulling weeds or other chores wear long sleeves with a wrist band.

When coming in from working or walking in tick prone areas immediately inspect all your skin surfaces, including body cracks and crevices and your scalp.  Ticks tend to climb upward and like warm hairy places on the body best. Check your scalp. You may need to use a mirror.  Strip and take a shower with hot water if you can.  Inspect anything you carried inside like a jacket or backpack for ticks too.  And check your dog if it’s been out there with you.

Throw your clothes in the washer and wash them with HOT water.  If you have one of the machines that doesn’t let the water get very hot you’ll need to dry clothes on high heat for 60 minutes or more.  If you can’t wash the clothing put it in the dryer for 60 minutes on high heat. 

Remember most gardeners won’t have to worry about ticks in regularly tended gardens.  And don’t panic if you do get a tick bite.  Most people will not get a disease from the bite.  But if ticks are common in your area it’s best to protect yourself and be on the look-out for them.

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