After the winter that we’ve had, most of us were very excited to see that summer has finally arrived.  However, at least in the Richmond/Midlothian area, we seem to be having an exceptionally bad tick season.  It’s almost like the ticks that made it through the winter came out even stronger and with larger numbers than ever!

There is a lot of information about ticks on the internet, and some fabulous websites illustrating all the different kinds and what they look like in different stages.  There is also a lot of miss-information out there, so I thought I’d take a moment to clarify a few things.  Please give us or your regular DVM a call if you have any questions or concerns about this, or any information that you find.

The most prevalent ticks that we are seeing in our area include the

  • Lone Star Tick,
  • American Dog Tick
  • Blacklegged Tick

Lone Star Ticks

Lone star ticks are found mostly in woodlands with dense undergrowth and around animal resting areas. The larvae do not carry disease, but the nymphal and adult stages can transmit the pathogens causing Monocytic Ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and ‘Stari’ borreliosis. Lone Star ticks are notorious pests, and all stages are aggressive human biters.

Adults are active April- late August and can be found questing for larger animals, such as dogs, coyotes, deer, cattle and humans on tall grass in shade or at the tips of low lying branches and twigs. Females are easily recognized by a single white dot in the center of a brown body, with the males having spots or streaks of white around the outer edge of the body. Females require a week to 10 days or more to engorge and can lay 2,500-3,000 eggs.

Nymphs are active May- early August, and can be found questing for deer, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, turkeys and some birds as well as cats, dogs and humans. Where abundant, nymphs seemingly swarm up pant legs and can become attached in less than 10 minutes. Nymphs typically take 5-6 days to become replete, and once fully engorged, they fall off of the host into the leaf litter, where they molt into adults.

Larvae are active July- late September and can be found questing for a wide variety of animals, including cats, dogs, deer, coyotes, raccoons, squirrels, turkeys, and some small birds. After feeding for around 4 days, they drop off of the host and bury themselves in the leaf litter, where they molt into nymphs.

American Dog Tick

American Dog Ticks are found predominantly in areas with little or no tree cover, such as grassy fields and scrubland, as well as along walkways and trails. They feed on a variety of hosts, ranging in size from mice to deer, and nymphs and adults can transmit diseases such as Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever and Tularemia. American dog ticks can survive for up to 2 years at any given stage if no host is found. Females can be identified by their large off-white scutum against a dark brown body.

Adult males and females are active April- early August, and are mostly found questing in tall grass and low lying brush and twigs. They feed on medium-sized wildlife hosts, including raccoons, skunks, opossums and coyotes, as well as domestic dogs, cats and man. Adult American dog ticks commonly attack humans. Male ticks blood feed briefly but do not become distended with blood. Once finished feeding, males mate with the female while she feeds, which can take one week or more. Once replete, female dog ticks detach from their host and drop into the leaf litter, where they can lay over 4,000 eggs before dying.

Nymphs are active May – July, and feed on small and mid-sized animals, such as mice, voles, rabbits, raccoons and skunks. Nymphal dog ticks rarely attach to humans. Once engorged, nymphs detach from their host, falling into the grass/meadow thatch and leaf litter where they molt into adults.

Larvae are active late April – September, and can be found questing for a host (voles, mice, raccoons, opossums, etc.) in the leaf litter. In the northeastern U.S., larvae overwinter and are most abundant in the spring and early summer. After blood feeding for 3 to 4 days, larvae detach from their host, falling into the grass/meadow thatch and leaf litter where they molt into nymphs.

Blacklegged ticks or Deer tick

Blacklegged ticks (a.k.a Deer ticks) take 2 years to complete their life cycle and are found predominately in deciduous forest. Their distribution relies greatly on the distribution of its reproductive host, white-tailed deer. Both nymph and adult stages transmit diseases such as Lyme disease, Babesiosis, and Anaplasmosis.

Adult males and females are active October-May, as long as the daytime temperature remains above freezing. Preferring larger hosts, such as deer, adult blacklegged ticks can be found questing about knee-high on the tips of branches of low growing shrubs. Adult females readily attack humans and pets. Once females fully engorge on their blood meal, they drop off the host into the leaf litter, where they can over-winter. Engorged females lay a single egg mass (up to 1500-2000 eggs) in mid to late May, and then die. Larvae emerge from eggs later in the summer. Unfed female Blacklegged ticks are easily distinguished from other ticks by the orange-red body surrounding the black scutum. Males do not feed.

Nymphs are active May-August, and are most commonly found in moist leaf litter in wooded areas, or at the edge of wooded areas. The eight-legged, pin-head sized nymph typically attaches to smaller mammals such as mice, voles, and chipmunks, requiring 3-4 days to fully engorge. Nymphs also readily attach to and blood feed on humans, cats and dogs. Once fed, they drop off into rodent burrows or leaf litter in animal bedding areas where they molt and emerge as adults in the fall.

The six-legged larvae are active July-September and can be found in moist leaf litter. Larvae hatch nearly pathogen-free from eggs (only Borrelia miyamotoi is known to infect blacklegged tick larvae), and remain in the leaf litter where they will attach to nearly any small, medium or large-sized mammal and many species of birds. Preferred hosts are white-footed mice. Larvae remain attached to their host until replete, which usually requires 3 days. Once fully engorged, the larvae drop off of the host and molt, re-emerging the following spring as nymphs.

Some FAQs regarding ticks:

  • “I removed the tick, but I think I left the head behind” Monitor the site for inflammation and redness- there will often be a mild, self-limiting response to where the tick had attached.  This does NOT mean you’ve left the head behind, despite the tissue being a bit raised and even mildly painful.  Keep the area clean and apply a topical antibiotic cream for a few days and the swelling and redness should resolve.  If it doesn’t, please see your DVM or MD.  The head doesn’t keep biting once the body is removed.
  • Please do not light the tick on fire, pour oil/Vaseline/gasoline on the tick and yourself/your pet.  Just use tweezers with a point to remove the tick and disinfect the area after removal.
  • “I’ve been (or my pet’s been) bitten.  Should we be tested?”  Testing is recommended, and in pets, we test yearly for Lyme, Ehrlichia and Anaplasmosis when we run your pet’s heartworm test.  Often we are asked to test immediately upon removal of the tick to see if the tick “was contagious” but this is not possible. It can take up to six months of us to be able to test to see if you or your pet is infected.  However, it generally takes up to 24 hours of attachment for the tick to transmit disease, so we recommend FREQUENT checking of yourself and your pet and removal of the tick immediately upon finding it.  If in doubt, let us know, and we can test your pet.  Remember, the testing for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever (which is common in this area, and transmitted by the most-commonly found tick, the Lone Star tick) is not routinely done and has to be a separate blood test.  Be sure to talk to us about that if you have any questions.

Some recent data in our area is showing that over 40% of our Woodlake Animal Hospital patients have been exposed to either Lyme disease and/or Ehrlichiosis.  Other prevalent diseases in our area are not tested for as routinely, so our numbers aren’t as current for those diseases.  We can help prevent Lyme disease by regular tick preventative and vaccinations.  Please talk to us about prevention (and treatment if necessary) today!

There is a wonderful website (from which much of this information was gathered) through the University of Rhode Island. It is human-focused, but there is some good information for your pets, too.

Please call us if you have any questions or concerns.  Ticks are a big concern, but with some simple precautions, you can keep your family (two-legged and four) healthy and safe during this summer!