The blood-sucking season is upon us, but these little vampires are not movie stars. They are found in your yard rather than pages of teen magazines.
Ticks are usually considered insects, but are actually classified as arachnids, falling into the same category as mites, scorpions and spiders. They perch on grass stalks and shrubs and wait patiently for host animals to move past so they can hitch a ride and get a free meal. The ectoparasite (living externally) cannot jump or fly, dispelling the common thought that they leap onto animals from tree branches.
While ticks thrive in warmer weather, they can be active when ground temperatures surpass 45 degrees Fahrenheit. They are considered a superior carrier of disease, as they are stealthy and often go unnoticed until swollen with blood. The arachnid has a firm hold when feeding and lingers for many days until satiated, becoming more apparent as it swells.
Two main group of ticks exist: hard and soft. The hard tick is most often seen and is named for the stiff shield behind its mouth parts. Before feeding, this tick looks like a large raisin. It is often found on dogs and deer.
Soft ticks prefer birds and bats as hosts. They are rarely seen unless nesting animals are roosting in a building.
In Illinois, 15 species infest our grasses
, the most common being the American dog, lone star, black legged (deer), brown dog and the winter tick. The American dog adult feeds on warm blooded animals such as raccoons, humans and, of course, dogs. They are reddish brown, grow to 3/16 of an inch and can transmit Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia and ehrlichiosis. The female boasts a silver spot behind her head and grows to a half-inch after eating. The male doesn't increase much in size (typical!) post-dinner and sports silver lines on his back.
The lone star tick populates the southern half of Illinois and is much smaller than the American dog tick. An adult is brown and only and eighth of an inch long — easy to miss when on tick patrol. The black-legged tick is primarily located in the northern half of Illinois, feeds on the deer population and, as an adult, is about half the size of the American dog. This one is able to spread Lyme disease and hangs out on trails and in wooded areas.
To avoid bites this summer, wear proper clothing. Long-sleeved shirts, long pants, boots and a head covering are all necessary when traipsing around the hiking trails, and even in your backyard. Don't forget to tuck your pant legs into your socks and even run tape around the section where they meet to further protect yourself from these tiny creatures. Apply an insect repellent that is 10 to 30 percent DEET to your clothing and don't forget to check yourself for hitchhikers every couple of hours.
Stay clear of high grass and weeds. To keep ticks out of your yard: mow like mad, as they are partial to overgrowth. They also thrive in wet conditions. Infestations are not uncommon. Seed ticks (the 6-legged stage of newborns) can attack in staggering numbers — up to 30,000 at a time. Weak animals can be overwhelmed by such a blitz on their system that they perish from anemia.
If you are bitten
Removing ticks can be tricky business and might require a doctor or veterinarian for assistance. A mobile tick can be caught with tape. Wrap the tape around your hand and place the adhesive side over the parasite to catch it. A feeder can be separated from its host with tweezers. Be careful not to move and get as close to the skin as possible. Do not touch the tick with your bare hand, as even its secretions are able to spread disease. Place the blood sucker in soapy water, alcohol, down the toilet, or attach it to tape before washing the bite area and your hands. If you develop a rash near a bite wound, see your doctor immediately.
While ticks can be almost as scary as the price of popcorn at the movies, don't let them keep you from enjoying our beautiful trails and summer getaways. Play it safe and ensure you check your pets as frequently as you check yourself!