Ixodes scapularis - more commonly referred to as the deer tick, is unfortunately something that the majority of Mainers have had to deal with at some point in their lives. For some, these tiny pests can cause big problems. Deer ticks often carry and can transmit several very serious and life-threatening diseases such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, or ehrlichiosis. But how do they come to carry such diseases, and how do you protect your pets and yourself from contracting them? Well, let’s dig in!
The deer tick is a three-host tick, meaning it goes through three active life stages that require a different host, or food source, during each stage. Their two-year life cycle begins in early spring when an adult female lays several thousand eggs. This typically happens from April to May, which is when you will first notice an uptick (pun intended!) of finding them attached to your pets. In early summer, tiny six-legged larvae will hatch from the eggs and begin feeding on their first host. They typically will find small mammals. Many of these hosts, particularly mice and chipmunks, are infected with the agent that causes Lyme disease and will transmit it to the larval ticks. The six-legged larvae will molt into the eight-legged nymph stage, with numbers peaking in June and July. The nymphs generally will feed on a small to midsize host. By late summer, the nymphs will molt into the final adult stage. Only the female deer tick will take a blood meal so that they are able to lay their eggs. Adult ticks are more commonly active in early spring (April to May) or late fall (October), but may be found anytime during the year as long as temperatures are above 35 degrees.
All life stages will feed on human and domestic animal hosts, but it is the nymphs that are responsible for the majority of Lyme disease cases in humans. Nymphs can be very difficult to detect due to the fact that they are typically about the size of a poppy seed. When ready to feed, they will climb onto blades of grass or similar vegetation to await their host. A host is detected by several factors. Odor, body heat, moisture, release of carbon dioxide, vibrations, and moving shadows are all clues that a viable host is nearby. Ticks are unable to fly or jump, meaning that the host must brush by them and make direct contact in order for them to cling on. Once on, they may attach themselves to the skin quickly or wander for some time before attaching.
It’s extremely important to check yourself and your pets regularly for ticks and remove them within 24 hours of attachment. This will help minimize the risk of exposure to tick-borne diseases. Some common places that ticks like to hide are your pet’s ears, eyelids, in between their toes, around their anal and groin area, and the tail. If you do happen to find an attached tick, try to resist the urge to remove it with your fingers. Using your fingers or even a pair of tweezers can crush and squeeze the body of the tick, forcing toxins back into your pet through the tick’s saliva. The same thing occurs when you use Vaseline (or other substances) to try to “suffocate” an attached tick. These methods will often increase the possibility of infection. Ideally you should have a tick removing device such as a TickKey. Using your fingers, part your pet’s fur around the attached tick and lay the large opening of the tick key flat over the body of the tick. Gently slide the key along your pet’s skin until the tick becomes wedged in the narrow slot at the end. Continue to pull the key along your pet’s skin until the tick detaches. The head should still be intact to the tick’s body, but don’t panic if it’s not. Leave the area alone, much like a splinter, the bite area will scab over and the head will fall out in a few days. You can clean the bite area with rubbing alcohol or mild soap and water. Dispose of the tick by drowning it in rubbing alcohol or flushing it down the toilet. Make sure to thoroughly wash your hands when you are finished.
Of course, preventing ticks from attaching to your pets in the first place is much easier than dealing with them after the fact! We offer a variety of natural flea and tick repellents that use essential oils and are completely FREE of toxic harsh chemicals that are often known to cause chemical burns and rashes, epileptic seizures, and in severe cases, death. Earth Animal is one of our favorite and best selling brands. They offer everything from topical spot on treatments, to collars, to internal powders! An added bonus, all our natural flea and tick products can be used safely and in conjunction with traditional treatments. If you do prefer to use a traditional treatment option, we recommend that you purchase it directly through your veterinarian to ensure proper storage, handling, and that the product is not a counterfeit. An additional added bonus, our topical flea & tick sprays are safe to use on humans and can help protect you too!
If you have any questions, or would like more information about our all natural flea and tick preventative products, stop by one of our locations to talk with one of our many expert team members!
Sources: University of Maine: "Tick Species of Maine: Blacklegged Tick Or Deer Tick"