Ticks are like little vampires. Teeny, tiny, little vampires, with a creepy-cool spidey sense that tells them when a host is approaching. Like their spider and scorpion cousins, ticks are arachnids. Unlike them, they are obligate temporary ectoparasites, meaning they have to feed on a host to complete their life cycles.
Most hard ticks have four stages: egg, larvae, nymph and adult. (There are also soft ticks, but we’re ignoring them.)
Each post-egg stage requires a single blood meal from a different species of host, usually starting with a rodent and moving on to larger mammals. It can take up to three years to complete the process, though most ticks die before they reach adulthood because they don’t successfully ambush a host.
And that’s probably a good thing for us, as ticks are second only to mosquitoes for spreading disease to humans. They can contract blood-borne pathogens from any one of their hosts and pass it to the next. We don’t have to worry about the larvae. Nymphs are another matter.
Like the adults, poppyseed-sized nymphs have slippery, hard-to-scratch-off bodies and hook-like claws. Both nymphs and adults hang out alongside trails, “questing” for a host—extending the front legs to expose the Haller’s organ, a nifty unit that detects vibrations, moisture, body heat and carbon dioxide.
Once a potential host is located, some species passively wait for it to brush by, while others pursue, albeit slowly. If a nymph is successful, it scuttles into a moist, hairy niche and commences sucking. After four or five days, it falls off and morphs into an adult. Adults may stay on the host longer, alternately feeding and mating. Because they’re minuscule, nymphs often go unnoticed, and so infect more people and pets than adults do.
Though less ticky than humid states, Utah has plenty of the little suckers; most commonly the Rocky Mountain wood tick and the American dog tick. Closely related, they transmit many of the same diseases, including Colorado tick fever, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia and tick paralysis.
We also have Western blacklegged ticks and—maybe—deer ticks, both of which can transmit Lyme disease, anaplasmosis and more. There’s a debate about whether or not Utah’s Western blacklegged ticks carry Lyme disease, with the state saying “No they don’t” and a bunch of infected Utahns saying, “Uh, yes they do.”
Even if our native ticks don’t carry Lyme disease, it’s likely that the deer ticks entering the state aboard white-tailed deer do. So while the risk of Lyme disease has been negligible to non-existent, it may increase along with our population of white-tailed deer, which are migrating across the country via cornfields.
While not every tick harbors disease, it’s best to be vigilant. And September through November is basically last call at the tick bar, and you do not want to be the site of a tick orgy.
Ticks quest from ground level to about knee-high, so wear long pants or snug-legged shorts when hiking or working around tall grass and shrubs. Definitely don’t go commando (for so many reasons). When you get home, shower immediately. If you take your dog, bathe or groom it within four hours.
If you do find an embedded tick, get it off—fast. (See sidebar.) It takes 24-36 hours for a tick to transmit disease, so you do have a grace period. If, unfortunately, you or your pet become infected, it can take anywhere from one to 90 days to manifest.
Many tick-borne diseases have flu-like symptoms, and that ambiguity is why it’s important to preserve the tick. Because while many veterinarians are attuned to tick diseases, most physicians are not. So be proactive. For information on symptoms and treatments, see cdc.gov/ticks/diseases.
How to remove a tick
Using tweezers, grasp the tick as close to the skin as
Gently and steadily pull upward. Don’t squeeze! If the mouthparts break off in the skin, carefully lift them out with a sterile needle. Clean the site thoroughly.
If you don’t have tweezers, use a tissue or other barrier between your skin and the tick; don’t touch it with bare hands.
Next, tape the tick to a piece of paper with the day’s date and put it into a baggie. Save for at least three months. That way, if you or your pet become ill, your care provider will know tick-borne disease is a possibility.