Tick Guide: Common Types Of Ticks In North America

Kate Barrington
by Kate Barrington
You’ve heard of bird watching… but what about tick watching? No, it’s not an actually hobby, but if you’re a dog owner, you should know the types of ticks in your neck of the woods.

If you’re a dog owner, the coming of spring doesn’t just signify the return of the sunny days and the smell of the flowers in the air. More than everyone, it seems, pet parents are aware that the loveliest season of the year comes with one seriously nasty side effect: ticks. The reason for this is that ticks are one of the worst parasites that target pets and the primary concern of any responsible dog owner should be protecting his four-legged companion from these bloodsuckers.

Even though they do not mind feeding on humans, ticks are a type of arachnid that commonly chooses cats and dogs as their host bodies. What does this mean? Ticks have mouth hooks that they use to attach themselves to your pet’s skin. Some even produce a glue-like substance that ensures that they stay firmly hooked while they feed. Then, they start snacking on your dog’s blood, and once they get their fill they move on to the next unsuspecting victim. Usually, this doesn’t last long: if undisturbed, ticks can feed for anywhere from 3 to 10 days. Rarely, the prolonged feeding on their blood can cause anemia in dogs, but that’s not the main reason why ticks are so dangerous for dogs.

These external parasites may be small but they carry the potential to transmit deadly diseases to your pet including Lyme disease, ehrlichiosis, canine babesiosis, anaplasmosis, and Rocky Mountain spotted fever to name a few. The effects of these canine diseases range from fever and lameness to potentially fatal outcomes in severe cases. And all that because of one measly bite from an insect- that’s how dangerous ticks can be.

It’s clear that tick prevention is crucial, especially if your pet spends a lot of time outside, in nature- but even city pooches are not immune as ticks can live in urban environments, as well. To protect your pet from ticks you should administer a monthly topical flea and tick preventive – but you should also take the time to learn about the different ticks to which your dog may be exposed. Not all ticks transmit the same diseases and pose the same danger to your pet – knowing how to identify the one that bit your dog could make the difference between life and death for your best friend.

Related: How To Remove A Tick From A Dog

Types of Ticks Found in the U.S.

There are many different species of ticks found around the world- expert sources indicate that the number is close to 850 worldwide, with less than hundred of those species being common for the territories of the United States of America. Even though the amount of tick species is staggering when you come to think about it, the numbers dwindle when you consider only those that feed on dogs, and furthermore when you localize things. There is a fair number of dog ticks in the US, but these are the five species which are most common in North America.

Deer Tick (Ixodes scapularis): Also known as the blacklegged tick, the deer tick is most commonly found in deciduous forest areas. These ticks are primarily distributed by whitetail deer and they can carry several different diseases in both the adult and nymph stages including Lyme disease, Anaplasmosis, and Babesiosis.

As larvae, these ticks are under 1 mm in length, so they’re about the size of a poppy seed, and they’ll have six legs. As nymphs, they’ll be anywhere from 1 to 2 mm in length, so about the size of a pinhead, and they’ll have eight legs. As adults, they’ll feature a flat body that fills up with blood after it feeds, and they’ll have eight legs. Generally, they’re brownish colored, but after they feed, they might be described as brown-red or rust colored. Male adults are brown, and unfed females are brown and red (females also appear to have a darker color after they feed). Also, adult males are small, measuring 3 to 5 mm, while females are 10 mm.

American Dog Tick (Dermacentor variabilis): These ticks are most commonly found in grassy areas with little to no tree cover. American dog ticks feed on hosts of all sizes and they can carry Tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever. These ticks can survive up to 2 years with no host.

It is common for an adult American dog tick to bite a human, so take precautions to protect not only your pets but yourself as well. Female American dog ticks feature a big off-white marking set on a dark brown body, so that is one way that you can recognize this type of tick. The adult males feature a brown body and markings that are whitish to gray in color. In terms of their size, they can be 15 mm when engorged and 5 mm when not engorged. Also, while larvae will have six legs, nymphs and adults will have eight legs.

Related: Top 10 Flea and Tick Prevention Tips

Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americamm): This type of tick is primarily found in areas of dense undergrowth and woodlands, particularly in animal resting areas. Lone star ticks can carry disease in both the adult and nymphal stages – diseases they can carry include Rocky Mountain spotted fever, “Stari” borreliosis, and Monocytic Ehrlichiosis.

In terms of their appearance, these ticks are quite easy to recognize. Adult females will have a white dot located on the center of their back, while males will feature white streaks or lines on the edges of the top part of the body. Just be aware that the markings on the male ticks won’t be as easy to see as those that are found on the females.

Brown Dog Tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus): These ticks are found all over the world and in all parts of the United States, though they are most heavily concentrated in the south. Brown dog ticks can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever in all life stages but they can only transmit canine babesiosis and canine ehrlichiosis in the adult and nymphal stages.

Adults that haven’t fed will measure around 1/8” in length. After they’ve fed, males will be smaller than females, with females being around ½” in length. Also, adults will be reddish-brown in color, without any recognizable markings. And, after feeding, these ticks could take on a blue-gray color.

Wood Tick (Dermacentor andersoni): Also known as the Rocky Mountain wood tick, these ticks are primarily found in lightly wooded areas, grasslands, and shrub land. Wood ticks can transmit Colorado tick fever virus (CTFV) in all life stages to humans and they can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever to cats, dogs, and humans. These ticks also have a type of neurotoxin in their saliva which can lead to tick paralysis in both pets and humans.

When mature, a wood tick will have eight legs. Females will be around 5 mm long, while males will measure around 3.6 mm in length. After they feed, however, the females could grow up to 1.5 cm long. Both females and males will have grayish patterns that can help you recognize this type of tick, but males will have a mottled gray color along the back, while females will be nearly totally gray behind the head.

Always Keep an Eye Out for Ticks

With ticks, timing is the key. If you spot the tick on your pet’s fur quickly enough and manage to separate it from the skin, it could be all it takes to prevent the transmission of the disease. This is why vigorous observation and control are a must when you’re out and about with your pet. Whenever you spend time in the great outdoors with your furry friend, keep an eye out for ticks, and remove them right away if you find any on your pet’s body or on your own body. Removal of ticks is not as straightforward as you may think, though. The tick’s mouthparts could remain in your pet’s body if the extraction is not done properly which leaves room for further issues: it’s important to disinfect the area beforehand and pull the tick swiftly away from the body with tweezers.

In addition to being prepared in case of a bite, you can also research ways to protect your yard from these parasites. For example, there are pesticides that you can consider using. And you can also take steps like removing leaf litter, keeping your grass short by mowing frequently, and installing tall fencing to keep unwanted wildlife, such as deer, from entering your yard and dropping ticks into the area where you and your dogs spend time.

Talk to Your Vet About How to Protect Your Pet from Ticks

These types of ticks can be dangerous for both you and your pet. Not only are there many species of ticks found in the United States, but they are also widely distributed – ticks are active all year round, not just during the summer and fall. If you want to fully protect your pet from the deadly diseases listed above, you should see your veterinarian about a topical flea and tick preventive. It is always better to be safe than sorry and protecting your pet from ticks is no laughing matter.

Kate Barrington
Kate Barrington

Kate Barrington is the loving owner of two cats (Bagel and Munchkin) and a noisy herd of guinea pigs. Having grown up with golden retrievers, Kate has a great deal of experience with dogs but labels herself a lover of all pets. Having received a Bachelor's degree in English, Kate has combined her love for pets and her passion for writing to create her own freelance writing business, specializing in the pet niche.

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