Wood Ticks

2007 May 12

Well, once again, it’s Tick Time. They hang out on tall objects (mostly dead weed stems and the sides of buildings) with their little front legs outstreched, and grab on when someone brushes past unsuspectingly. They don’t bite right away, so we usually find them when they are still crawling around looking for a place to latch on (at this time of year, every little tickle and itch becomes suspect). The ones we have around here are good old Dermacentor variabilis, which some people call a “dog tick” and others call a “wood tick”, while just about everybody calls it an “eeewwww” when they find it crawling up their leg.



You can actually tell the males from the females pretty easily. The males have a hard, patterned body, while the females have a sort of “shield” structure behind the head, and the abdomen is unpatterned and kind of leathery.


The reason for the difference is pretty obvious: the females have to have a stretchy enough abdomen to do this:


This one was on the dog, by the way. It could have gotten a lot bigger, this one was picked off before it was finished[1].

[Edit: Jeremy pointed out in the comments below that I misidentified the engorged one. The legs and the shield-like structure behind the head (the scutum) on the engorged tick are both black, not reddish-brown legs and light-colored scutum like the other ticks on this page. This means it is some other kind of tick, not a wood tick. And, as it turned out, we have since found more of these, and they were positively identified as deer ticks by the Michigan Department of Agriculture. These are the ones that carry Lyme Disease, among other illnesses. Uh oh.]

They normally don’t stay on a human long enough to get this much blood, the victim usually notices they are there long before this point. Sometimes, the ones on the dogs get to be as big as grapes[2]. I can see where a small mammal, like a squirrel, getting more than a couple of female ticks could easily start having problems with blood loss.

With the amount of blood that they get, a successful female tick could probably lay a few thousand eggs without much difficulty[4]. Even if we managed to get them all eradicated from the yard somehow, it would probably only take one passing deer to drop an engorged tick to completely restock them for the next spring.

Wood ticks like these are distinct from deer ticks, which are smaller and more likely to carry disease (particularly Lyme disease, although they evidently transmit other diseases of deer that are communicable to people, like brucellosis). According to reports from the neighbors, the deer ticks are just starting to colonize this area, so we’ll probably be seeing pictures of them at some point. Wonderful.

The neighbors who used to live in our house (and who have lived on our road for at least 50 years) say that the wood ticks weren’t a problem in the past, either. They evidently migrated into the area sometime in the last 30 years or so. They really like the boggy bottomlands north of the house, anybody going into that area this time of year is almost certain to pick up anywhere from 3 to 10 ticks in just a few minutes. Sometimes I think we need a “decontamination chamber” at the entrance to the house, where people coming in would stop and thoroughly brush down to remove any ticks from their clothing. Disrobing and fumigating would probably work, too, but that seems a bit extreme.


[1] There are a lot of methods that people bandy about for removing ticks, but we normally just grasp them firmly and pull them off. Bug Girl has a nice bit about removing ticks, and links to the instructions from the Center for Disease Control. In general, this boils down to needing two things: Calmness[3], and a pair of tweezers. Grab the tick as close to the victim’s skin as possible with the tweezers, and pull firmly until it pops off. If you expect to get a lot of ticks, there are these things that look like tiny crowbars, called “tick twisters”, that work pretty good, too. But, you can’t usually count on having access to the fancy tools, while you can always be pretty sure of being able to lay hands on some tweezers. When you pull off a tick that has latched on, they usually just pull a small bit of the dead surface layer of the skin off with them, and as long as they haven’t penetrated to the blood supply yet there isn’t even a wound. If there is bleeding, disinfecting the wound is an excellent idea. Any tick bite that draws blood should be taken seriously enough to have a doctor look at it, or at least keep under observation for symptoms of disease. Once ticks are off, they are quite difficult to kill, crushing them is almost impossible – it’s like trying to crush an apple seed. And, if you toss them in the trash without killing them, they’ll just crawl back out and wait for you, to take another go at your circulatory system. If you aren’t sure what kind of tick it is, it’s a good idea to save it in a little bottle until you can be sure whether it’s a disease-carrying kind. We generally are pretty sure about what we’ve got here, and just want to get rid of them. So, we usually take drastic measures like cutting off their heads with a pair of scissors, or dropping them in a small cup of bleach. That generally finishes ’em right off.

[2] One year, we had a stray dog that S. picked up in the woods that was covered with ticks. He had hundreds, dripping off him like bunches of grapes. We doused him with medicated shampoo and kept him in the back of the truck until they all dropped off and died. It was pretty appalling.

[3] Don’t panic. Don’t Panic! DO YOU HEAR ME? DON’T PANIC!! I WILL NOT TOLERATE PANIC!!!

[4] If you want to see how many eggs a female tick can lay, have a look at the first picture on this page. The text is in Portuguese, but the picture pretty much speaks for itself, don’t you think?

8 Responses
  1. May 10, 2009

    Great pic here. I’m actually doing some legwork for my next update of TickDoctor which is a tick identification atlas for the iPhone. I’d love to use this pic for the next update- could you email me with your permission? If you have any other of these guys, would love to see them.

    Also, might I suggest the bottom picture of the series may be a deer tick (also called black legged tick)? The legs and scutum are both black instead of rich brown.

  2. Sandra H permalink
    May 13, 2009

    I think you definitely need to add some in situ pictures, if you can get the victim to hold still long enough.

  3. Victoria permalink
    March 24, 2010

    My sisters and I used toplay in the woods everyday in Chesterfield MI. We logged walked to school threw the woods and never once had a tick on us. Now 20 years later Ticks! One day I had one on my chest wheck I could not see if I looked down and my sister just happened to be over and said hey I never new you had a mole right there? I could not see it but just went into the panic of (Spider) and scratched and it came off, ugh! A tick! Very small like a deer tick!
    The year before I was walking threw the woods, in the spring….. and I watched one climb up my leg… and the same year during he summer…. Because we were in the pool and I had my 5 year old with me, I was playing with him and under the water I noticed threw his beautiful blonde hair a tick, flat…. but the size of a eraser to a pencil. Never once felt a itch, or anything moving on us. (Which scares me even more!)

    …… Now I have the ebbi jeebies….
    So bad, that my neighbors say they have to roll up their windows when they pass my yard so that they will not grow any extra toes! OMG! This is just awful! Just writing this, I am creeping out!

    I wonder does anybody know when they become active? March? I would rather spray my yard. The bug spray gives me a headache!
    Take care, Victoria

  4. March 24, 2010

    Victoria: They come out around here pretty much as soon as the snow melts, and they hang out on grass stems waiting to grab something until (a) something like a bird eats them; (b) they grab onto a host; or (c) they eventually starve to death. They usually taper off by about the end of June or so.

    So, if your snow is gone, you probably need to start watching for them right now.

  5. Amy L permalink
    May 19, 2011

    Hi, My dogs came home a few weeks ago with close to a hundred ticks on them (I lost count after 72) and one had been sprayed in the face by a skunk (the dog not one of the ticks). A couple weeks before that I pulled 20 some-odd ticks off of the same one that got sprayed, and I noticed at that time that he smelled vaguely like skunk, but certainly hadn’t been directly sprayed. We live out in the groves of northern San Diego County and don’t get snow, but the ticks do seem to start appearing the most after the rain clears up.
    I am wondering if ticks burrow in the ground? If so, do they tend to commune in skunk holes? Ever since we moved down this way the boys (my dogs) have been coming home with a few ticks a week, but only when skunk seemed to be involved was there just a ridiculous amount of them. I finally gave in and bought them some Advantix II (I was skeptical before) and the ones I didn’t find just dried up and fell right off and I haven’t found a single one since, but it still boggles my mind at how many they had on them!

  6. Holly permalink
    June 20, 2013

    Hi, I have a question I think you all can help me with.
    About 2 months ago my 6 year old grandson had a blood filled sac, oblong in shape, and was extremely hard. Looking at it under a magnifying glass I could not find any “body parts” no legs, nothing. But, I was sure it was a tick, my grandson lives in an area that should have a sign saying welcome to tick town. They consistently picking them off their clothes and shoes.
    All I could see was the very hard blood filled sac attached to his skin on the top of his scalp. No matter what I showed my daughter or how much I begged her to get him to a doctor she insisted it was just a pimple from sweating, omg, I did not raise her that stupid, she must take after her fathers side. Anyway, she kept trying to pop it and even tried using a pin to break open the sac and let the blood out, it was too hard to do so, again I told her it was a tick.
    Well as the weeks went by the sac started to begin shrinking so she insisted that it was just drying up, whatever that meant. By the time I saw him again about 3 weeks later the sac had completely disappeared but there was a scab, about the size of a dime but a bit smaller. I was mortified thinking that the tick had completely embedded itself into his scalp and I took him to the doctor myself, my daughter tagged along to prove me wrong.
    The doctor was only able to see the scab, I showed him the pictures and the timeline and that they live in tickville, he told me since I was the doctor and already diagnosed him why did I bother to bring him, which gave my daughter much pleasure. Then he said to my daughter that there are no signs of rings around the scab and he has no symptoms of Lyme disease, it could have been a tick bite but most likely a bug bite. He gave her a prescription for bactrim, just to be sure, and told me not to believe everything I see on the Internet!!
    I politely asked him if he had any type of training in disease of bug/tick bites? And was he aware that there are many species of ticks that could be potentially dangerous.
    Not to mention I was born raised and regularly visit my family in up state New York where deer ticks are as common as a mosquito, I asked him if he could at least do blood work, he said they didn’t have a lab to test for that type of “stuff” I said maybe not but they can check a CBC and platelet and WBC that would be a great indication that something was going on, he looked at my daughter and said he saw no reason to subject him to bloodwork but it was her decision.
    We left with a prescription for bactrim no blood work and the prescription is still on her refrigerator ! She never gave it to him.
    The first time I saw it, it had already been there a week. About a week later she said that my grandson stayed home from school he had a slight fever and just ached all over, she thought he had over done it at tball practice. Then he would complain of headaches every now and then. Now, he is getting bloody noses and his back hurts and he still gets the headaches. No rashes or any skin abnormalities other than the scab, but, the headaches, back pain, bloody noses are always passed off as rough housing or from the trampoline.
    I know he hasn’t been feeling well, he’s tired all the time and has bags under his eyes from being tired. He’s pale. Yet he is still strongly encouraged to play with the other neighborhood kids and they are always busy so he doesn’t get much rest to begin with. He will be staying with me almost the entire month of July, any suggestions where I can take him for the appropriate blood work or a specific type of test to ask for? I need peace of mind and something is causing him to have these symptoms that he never had before.
    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated, other than smacking my daughter, I’ve already got that idea, and if he is sick, because of a lengthy story I would have custody and he wants to live with me anyway. This is for sure not the first time she hasn’t given him his medication at all or forgets and he’ll get a dose every few days or so. Please let me know about the testing. Thank you very much. Ill keep you up to date.

  7. January 9, 2020

    Dangit! I only invested $7834. No wonder I didn’t get anything back.

  8. November 12, 2020

    Also, many thanks permitting me to comment!

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