Ticks must eat blood at every life stage in order to grow and therefore to survive. If they cannot find a host to complete their life cycle, they die. Indeed most do die because they cannot find a host. As much as I love all animals, I cannot help but wish more ticks in my region starved to death. Unfortunately (from my itchy point of view), the starvation process can take months to years. Since ticks must have a blood meal to grow, develop and lay eggs, the entire life cycle can take up to three years.
The first host of a tick is usually a small mammal or a lizard, but can also be a large mammal, bird or amphibian. Most ticks prefer a different type of host animal at each stage, but if starvation is the option, they will attach and feed to whatever is available. This blood meal is critical for the tick to grow. After feeding, the larva drops to the ground to digest its food and begin to grow. One to three weeks later, the larva molts and becomes a nymph. A nymph is a larger six-legged tick.
Ticks can detect host animal’s breath, body odors, body heat, moisture and vibrations. Ticks come in two general types. Soft bodied types live in nests or burrows. Females lay eggs in the host’s homes and larvae and nymphs just crawl to feed at night. They feed quickly much like a flea and rapidly detach. The more familiar, hard bodied ticks find hosts by “questing.” This means that they hang onto leaves or grass by their back legs and hold out their first pair of legs. They often will wait by well used paths where they patiently reach out waiting for a host. This may take weeks to months and the tick may crawl down at night and back up in the morning. When a host brushes against the vegetation, the tick quickly climbs on. Some species attach quickly wherever, while others look for thin skin locations. Hard body ticks may spend days consuming a host’s blood. Often larvae quest at ground level where small rodents would be. Nymphs are often a little higher in vegetation to try for bigger hosts. Adults climb the highest to find large hosts. I know first hand that disturbing rotting wood with a bunch of larvae, will result in hundreds of larva and nymph bites.
Different species of ticks feed differently, but preparing to feed can take 10 minutes to two hours. Then the tick grasps the skin and cuts into the surface. There are two telescoping, barbed structures called chelicerae. These spread like arms and pull skin back. Researchers described it like a breaststroke maneuver. That motion sinks a spiky, sword-like shaft or hypostome appendage into the host. The chelicerae and the hypostome form a tube for withdrawing blood. Hard-bodied ticks secrete a cement-like substance that keeps them firmly attached during the feeding process. Those same barbs of the feeding tube keep the tick in place. The reason that you may not notice the tick cutting into your skin is the saliva that has anesthetic properties. In a sheltered spot, the tick may not be notice for quite a while. This anesthetic substance does kill the skin and the weight of the engorged tick and the dying skin means the tick will fall off to rest and molt to the next stage.
Of course, we would like the tick off as soon as possible. The Center for Disease Control recommends using fine-tipped tweezers to grasp the tick as close to the skin as possible. Steady, even pressure will pull the entire tick, mouthparts and some of your skin. Twisting or jerking the tick can cause the mouth parts to break off and remain in the skin. (Mouthparts should be removed with clean tweezers.) After removal, clean the area and your hands. Rubbing alcohol, iodine scrub or even soap and water work well. A live tick should be placed in a small bottle of alcohol. We have several “tick jars” at Guardian Animal. Flushing it down the toilet means that it will likely crawl back out later. If you crush it with your fingers, be aware that the pathogens (germs) will be released from the tick. Avoid the folklore remedies such as “painting” the tick with nail polish, petroleum jelly or taking a match to it. All of these will cause the tick to regurgitate pathogens into your bloodstream and the tick will remain attached longer.
This whole amazing life cycle is what sets ticks up to be the champion disease transmission vector. They may be disease-free at hatching (or they may already be infected in the egg), but if their first host is infected, the tick gets the infection with the blood meal. Then every other host that tick feeds on is at risk of the disease. Anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Lyme disease are all tick-borne diseases transmitted to mammals.
For pets we have very effective tick killers or accarides. Humans that do not do well with DEET can try the old time remedy of powdered sulfur dusted on their clothes or in their socks. Pets can ingest sulfur and it is not recommended for them. Another old time remedy is to allow chickens or especially guineas to eat the ticks. Although I am going to try this, it has not been proven to be effective. We do know that ticks do not like sunlight and removing brush and weeds can help. Ideally, there should be a three-foot walkway to cut down on the questing behavior. Unfortunately, all the clearing and yard work means that I have more work to do in tick-infested areas and this will allow even more ticks to complete their quests. Meanwhile, I haven’t stopped itching from the last batch of these amazing creatures.