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What Is a Deer Tick?

By Stephany Seipel
Updated Mar 05, 2024
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The deer tick Ixodes scapularis, also called the blacklegged tick, is a type of tick native to the eastern United States. This arthropod is a major carrier of Borrelia burgdorferi, which is the bacterium that causes Lyme disease. Although deer ticks occasionally feed on human blood, humans are not a preferred part of their three-host life cycle.

A deer tick begins life as an egg and hatches into a tiny, tan larva. It feeds on the blood of small animals such as mice and other rodents. The larva ingests blood for several days before releasing its host. It needs to feed only one time while in the larval stage. After completing a blood meal, the larval tick molts into a beige nymph with a dark head.

As a nymph, a deer tick feed on larger animals such as squirrels and cats. It might also feed on human blood during this stage. Nymphs, like larvae, need to feed only once. It falls from the animal, drops to the ground and molts into an adult.

Adult male deer ticks are solid black, and the slightly larger females have red bodies and black legs. These ticks are roughly the size of a sesame seed before feeding but become larger when their bodies are engorged with blood. An adult deer tick feeds on large mammals such as deer and cattle, as well as canines and humans.

These ticks take about two years to complete all four life stages. During the spring, the female ticks disengage from their hosts. They lay about 1,000-3,000 eggs in the grass and then die.

The emerging larvae usually stay in the general area where they were hatched, where they wait for a potential host to come by. The chances of a larval deer tick finding a blood meal are slim. Many die of starvation, disease or predators before reaching adulthood.

Larval ticks ingest the Lyme disease bacterium from animals such as white-footed mice. They carry these spirochetes in their bodies throughout their life stages and pass the disease to future hosts. They are most likely to pass the disease to humans when they are in the nymphal stage.

Humans who are infected with the disease experience joint pain and swelling, headache, fever and a ringed rash at the site of the tick bite. Untreated infections can lead to heart problems, vision disorders or arthritis. Lyme disease usually can be treated successfully with antibiotics if it is caught in the early stages.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a deer tick and where is it commonly found?

A deer tick, scientifically known as Ixodes scapularis, is a small arachnid notorious for transmitting Lyme disease. These ticks are commonly found in wooded, brushy areas in the Northeastern, Mid-Atlantic, and North-Central United States, as well as parts of the Pacific coast. They thrive in humid environments and are often encountered in the transitional zones between forest and grassland.

How can a deer tick be identified?

Deer ticks are identifiable by their reddish-brown bodies, black shield near the head, and lack of white markings, which distinguishes them from the similar-looking wood tick. Adult females, which are typically larger than males, can grow up to 10 mm when engorged with blood. Nymphs and larvae are considerably smaller, making them more challenging to spot.

What diseases can deer ticks transmit to humans?

Deer ticks are vectors for several diseases, most notably Lyme disease. According to the CDC, they can also transmit babesiosis, anaplasmosis, Powassan virus disease, and Borrelia miyamotoi disease. Lyme disease alone accounts for over 30,000 reported cases annually in the United States, emphasizing the importance of tick bite prevention and prompt removal.

How can I prevent deer tick bites?

To prevent deer tick bites, use insect repellents containing DEET or permethrin on clothing and gear. When in tick-prone areas, wear long sleeves and pants, tuck pants into socks, and stick to the center of trails. After outdoor activities, conduct full-body tick checks and shower soon after to wash away unattached ticks.

What should I do if I find a deer tick on my body?

If you find a deer tick on your body, use fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin's surface as possible. Pull upward with steady, even pressure, avoiding twisting or jerking. After removal, clean the bite area and your hands with rubbing alcohol or soap and water. Monitor for symptoms and consult a healthcare provider if concerns arise.

Can deer ticks affect pets as well as humans?

Yes, deer ticks can affect pets, particularly dogs, by transmitting diseases such as Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, and ehrlichiosis. It's crucial to regularly check your pets for ticks, especially after they've been outdoors in areas where deer ticks are prevalent. Consult your veterinarian about tick prevention products and vaccinations to protect your pets.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

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