What are Ticks?
Ticks, of the class Arachnida, are external parasites – feeding off a host and giving nothing in return.
The sight of a tick attached to your body or that of your pet often gives rise to feelings of disgust, especially if the tick is in an engorged state.
There are around 850 different types of ticks across the world – large or small, hard or soft. Some ticks require humidity to complete their life cycle, while other tick life cycles require hot, dry climates.
Do ticks spread disease? Are their bites painful? Ticks spread a wide variety of diseases, including bacteria, viruses, and protozoa. Tick bites are not painful and thus more difficult to detect until after the damage has been done. For this reason, it is important to search for your body and clothing when you have been in a tick-infested area. Check your pets regularly, and administer preventative medicines when necessary.
A Description of Ticks
Like spiders, ticks have four pairs of legs. But, whereas spiders’ bodies are separated into a thorax and an abdomen, ticks’ bodies are not segmented.
How big do ticks get? Ticks range in size according to their species, from a tiny pinhead to a large apple seed. This means they can roam around your body for days without your noticing. Not a very pleasant thought! However, you will be relieved to know that they don’t lay eggs on you or your pets.
These little creatures have developed sophisticated means of detecting their prospective food sources. Some ticks can find their hosts by detecting body odors and the host’s breath. Some can sense body heat, vibrations, and moisture. They can detect animal paths and attach themselves to the grass and shrubs using the third and fourth pair of legs, with the front legs outstretched in a position known as “questing.” When an animal brushes against the questing tick, the tick grabs hold of its host using tiny, barbed legs and claws, and it doesn’t let go.
The different tick species are separated into two specific types: hard ticks and soft ticks.
A hard tick has a shield-like plate covering its back, known as a scutum. If you look at a hard tick from the top, you can see the scutum and a head-like capitulum. The male hard tick’s scutum covers most of its body, preventing it from becoming engorged with blood. The female, however, needs plenty of blood to lay her eggs. She can feed for up to 24 hours, her body becoming very large when feeding.
The lifespan of the male tick is considerably shorter, as he dies after mating. The female tick’s life cycle is longer, as she dies once her reproductive cycle is complete.
A soft tick has no scutum. If you look at it from the top, you can see the tick’s body and legs. The soft tick does not require as much blood as the hard tick, so their bodies don’t become as engorged as the hard ticks. In soft ticks, the female lays more than one batch of eggs. This will amount to between 2000 and 18,000 eggs in her lifetime and increases her lifespan. This means she feeds more often and does not become as engorged as the hard tick.
What all ticks have in common is that they need blood to live the full tick life cycle. It may take weeks or months to die off, and many do not reach their full life cycle. But, they have developed sophisticated methods of searching out hosts for their next meal, ensuring their species’ survival.
Ticks can survive indoors for some time. They can also survive cold winters with temperatures below freezing, after which they are starving.
The Life Cycle of Ticks
The life cycle consists of four stages: eggs, larva, nymph, and adult. After the eggs hatch, the following cycles all need blood to survive.
Ticks can survive for weeks without feeding. However, most do not survive due to a lack of blood hosts. But many larvae, nymphs, and adults survive long enough to be able to reproduce. Thus, a tick’s life expectancy depends on how soon they find a host and how often they feed – as some species feed more than once before reaching adulthood and before reproducing. Some types of tick can take up to three years to complete a full life cycle.
The three stages of ticks and their survival methods: Most tick larva that find a host will drop to the ground once they have finished feeding. The larvae turn into nymphs, and they will climb a bit higher and find a larger host. The adult tick will climb even higher in search of a larger animal. However, this is not always the case. Some ticks will spend all three of their tick cycles living on a single animal.
The ticks that stay on the one host for the duration of their life cycle are known as “one-host ticks.” Two-host ticks stay on one host through the larva and nymph stages, after which they drop off and search for larger hosts once they become adults. Most hard tick species are three-host ticks, dropping to the ground between each stage of their lives.
How many eggs can a tick lay? Adult females usually lay their eggs in spring and can lay between 1,500 to 5,000 eggs at a time. They select sheltered places like grass and leaf cover, close to animal pathways, or animal burrows where the larvae can find hosts more easily.
What do tick eggs look like? They are laid in a cluster, all at the same time. But, the eggs are translucent and minute in size, and not easy to see.
How long do the tick eggs take to hatch? Tick eggs hatch between 10 to 60 days, after which tiny ticks can survive for up to eight months whilst looking for a host to feed on.
The larvae have only six legs and are often barely visible to the naked eye.
What does the tick larva eat? The larval tick feeds mainly on smaller animals like rodents and lizards. Once the larval tick has had its first blood meal, it drops off the host body, where it takes a week or two to digest. After this process, it molts into a nymph.
Do tick larvae carry disease? Experts used to think that larval ticks were unlikely to transmit disease, as the eggs could not have been carriers of the disease. However, this may not necessarily be true – recent studies have shown that many cases of tick-borne disease occur in the months when the larva ticks are most active. This would mean that the disease is passed on to the eggs by the female tick, which is, of course, passed onto the larvae.
The nymph ticks have eight legs. This stage in the lifecycle of a tick will pose the biggest risk to animals and humans. Due to their minute size, which is approximately that of a pinhead, these little critters are difficult to detect on your body. Some species can burrow into your skin, while others adapt to look like your skin. The bite of a nymph tick is painless due to a natural anesthetic substance in the saliva and is unlikely to be detected until after the nymph has finished feeding and dropped off the host. However, nymph ticks generally feed off smaller animals like rodents or birds, staying on the host body for up to five days.
What is the lifespan of a nymph tick? Once the nymph tick has fed, it will drop onto the ground and molt. Some types of ticks will molt several times before finally turning into an adult tick. Each time they molt, they require another blood feed.
The adult tick is easier to detect due to its larger size, and therefore not a threat to humans. However, the adult tick has one mission in life, and that is to mate. They will do this on your body if undetected. Horrible thought!
Adult ticks have eight legs, with spines and claws that enable them to grasp vegetation and hosts. This makes it easier for them to climb vegetation and easier to lunge at passing prey.
What is the lifespan of an adult tick? If the adult tick cannot find a suitable host towards the end of summer, it will hide under vegetation and wait out the winter months in an inactive state. Once spring arrives and temperatures begin to rise, the adult tick will once again look for an unsuspecting animal to feed off. They now have a bit more urgency, as time is running out.
The adult male and female will mate on or off the host body, after which the female will continue feeding. Once she has become engorged, she will drop off the host, finding a safe place beneath a canopy of leaves or in a safe grassy area to lay her eggs.
Certain female ticks will lay more than once a batch of eggs, which means they will have to find another mate and start the process over.
Ticks have a substance in their saliva, which prevents the clotting of blood. This means that they can feed indefinitely. By injecting their saliva into the host, any disease that the tick is carrying will automatically be transferred to the host. In turn, infected animals move around and expand their area of habitat, causing the spread of disease into other geographical areas.
Ticks that have more than one host are capable of spreading disease between their different hosts. In particular, hard ticks can keep their mouths embedded in their hosts for days, increasing the host’s chances of contracting the disease.
Many of the diseases that ticks transmit are rickettsial, causing rashes, vomiting, headaches, and fever. If not treated in time, these diseases can be fatal, so it is wise to see a doctor who will prescribe an antibiotic.
Lyme disease is a bacterial infection caused by ticks and is prevalent in the United States, Europe, Africa, and Asia. It can cause a rash, fever, muscle pain, and headaches.
Tick bites are not always easy to identify. They can bite anywhere. But, their preference is warm moist areas, especially in places that are difficult to see.
Be constantly aware of new bites on your body. You may find an area that looks like an insect bite with a slight bump. Watch it for a few days to see whether it gets bigger, and see a physician if it does. Some tick bites have a black dot in the middle of them – if the head of the tick has been left behind, you may even be able to spot the pincers.
Prevention of Tick Bites and Disease
Studies show that the longer a tick stays on your body, the more likely you will be infected. If you have been in an area that you know has an infestation of ticks, you must do a thorough body search as soon as possible. You will find ticks in woody areas, forests, and grassland.
Ticks feed by way of a two-pronged mouthpart, which is held in place by salivary “cement.” And, this is further secured by backward-pointing barbs, making it difficult to remove the tick efficiently.
How to remove a tick: When pulling a tick off your pet or yourself, try not to squeeze its abdomen as this will cause the tick to regurgitate and increase the risk of transmitting disease. If available, use tweezers and pull the tick out with a firm, steady motion, without twisting the head and neck.
Don’t use a substance like alcohol or petroleum jelly to smother it, or burn it with a hot match. This may cause the tick to release more of its infected secretions into the wound. Often, the mouth part is left behind inside the wound. This can be difficult to remove, and it can easily become infected. Wash the area of the bite with soap and water.
Prevention of tick bites in pets: To prevent your pets from getting a tick-borne disease, clean their kennels regularly. Bathe and treat them with insect repellents.
To check for ticks on your property, drag a white towel or piece of fabric along the ground and through the long grass and shrubs. If you have a tick infestation, the towel will attract them. You will see several small ticks clinging to the towel. When treating your property with insecticide, be sure to follow the instructions provided very carefully, focusing on the shrubs and overgrown areas. An insecticide can be harmful to lawns.
Dogs and cats can be given tick and flea collars with active ingredients like imidacloprid. Other treatments include fast-acting pills and spot-on treatments containing fipronil. These last for a certain period, so it’s a good idea to put your pet on a regular maintenance plan to prevent illness resulting from tick bites.
There are several sprays available for carpets and upholstery, as well as for the garden. For more natural options, plant things that repel ticks, such as lemongrass and peppermint, in the garden, and use these topical solutions to treat tick infestations in animals. Keep your garden free of long grass, leaves, and any wooded areas that may be an ideal place for ticks to hide undetected. Mow your lawn frequently.
Rules for hiking, walking, and gardening: When taking part in outdoor activities, follow these basic rules. Some experts recommend using bug sprays that contain between 10% and 20% DEET, covering your skin and clothing. Be sure to wash it off your body when returning indoors. Wear long sleeves and preferably long, light-colored pants so that you can detect ticks more easily. Push your pants legs into your socks to cover up your bare ankles, and where possible, stick to the paths when on the trail. And remember to examine your body thoroughly, including your scalp.
Statistics show increasing figures in tick-borne disease year on year. Tick species have increased their geographical range over the years. They have many wild animal host species, moving further afield and sometimes into cities. Climate change has also made a difference with longer, hotter, and more humid summers. This has created ideal conditions for ticks to search for hosts with longer summers to increase their chances of reproduction.
Safeguard your family and pets by carrying out regular and thorough body checks, use insecticides where possible, and avoid tick-infested areas. Bear in mind that the tick’s life cycle can be up to three years, so you will need to complete ongoing treatment of tick infestations regularly.
Remember, prevention is better than cure.