Deer ticks (Ixodes scapularis) are also known as blacklegged ticks. These ticks are often mistaken for brown dog ticks. Named for their propensity to feed on white-tailed deer, these ticks may also feed on other large mammals as hosts, including humans. Humans, considered accidental hosts of deer ticks, may contract Lyme disease from bites. Livestock and domestic animals can also be hosts. They are primarily found in the eastern half of the U.S.
Deer ticks prefer to dwell in wet, bushy areas. They are found on leaves and plant life along paths frequented by their hosts. When hosts brush against these plants, deer ticks grab their fur or clothing.
The life cycle of the deer tick takes approximately two years to complete. Their development is dependent on environment and the availability of hosts. Under favorable conditions, they may be capable of developing in less than one year.
All three of the deer tick’s development stages require blood meals from hosts. Deer ticks attach themselves to and feed on one host during the larval stage, another during the nymphal stage and a third during their adult stage. Deer tick larvae and nymphs both molt after feeding.
After laying eggs, female deer ticks die. However, one female is capable of laying up to 3,000 eggs. Six-legged larvae emerge from these eggs and begin to search for a host. Larvae feed for approximately four days before dropping to the ground to molt into nymphs. Resulting nymphs have eight legs and search again for hosts. They, too, will feed and molt into adults.
Larval and nymphal deer ticks prefer small hosts and are more likely to feed on rodents than on large animals. Adults are fond of white-tailed deer and sometimes also feed on humans as hosts. The larval feeding stage is responsible for the tick’s contraction of most diseases, while these diseases are transferred to humans and livestock during the nymphal and adult stages.
Deer ticks begin life as eggs and develop through larval and nymphal stages before becoming adults. Females lay eggs in suitable areas close to vegetation. Larvae hatch and immediately begin searching for hosts, which tend to be small animals such as mice. It is during these early feeding stages that ticks contract diseases such as Lyme disease. These diseases are transmitted to hosts during the nymphal and adult feedings.
Deer tick bites are virtually painless, and victims often do not recognize that they have been bitten until symptoms appear. Campers and hikers should always check themselves thoroughly. Deer tick females feed for extended periods and can be found attached to the skin of bite victims. If there are medical concerns, consult a physician.
Lyme disease is a debilitating disease caused by the bacterium Borrelia burgdorferi. Deer ticks are the most common vectors of this bacterium. Lyme disease is easily transmitted to human and animal hosts through the deer tick’s bite.
Although deer ticks do not jump or fly, they remain in grassy areas frequented by dogs, cats and other warm-blooded hosts. As these hosts brush against the grass, deer ticks cling to the coat of the animal and begin to feed. Because the ticks potentially bite a different host for the next meal, infected ticks are capable of spreading Lyme disease quickly throughout a population.
The small size of the deer tick is also a factor in the prevalence of Lyme disease. Their bites are not painful, and most victims do not notice them until they have become engorged from prolonged feeding.
Removal of deer ticks can be difficult. If a specimen is crushed, infected bodily fluids are released and may further contaminate a bite victim. Contact a physician for any medical concerns.