red and black tick

A Guide To Tick Identification

Ticks are tiny insects that feed on the blood of animal or human hosts. While they are not all dangerous, it’s impossible to tell which ones harbor disease and which ones are simply trying to survive by feeding. That’s why it’s vital to learn how to identify ticks if you spend time outdoors. If you’re looking for an easy way to learn how to spot ticks, read on for a complete tick identification guide.

Why is tick identification so important?

Ticks can carry infectious diseases and pass them on to humans during feeding. While it can take 24–36 hours for an infected tick to pass on a bacterium, it’s still important to know what to look for if you encounter ticks while out and about.

Diseases you can contract from ticks, including Lyme disease, can significantly harm your overall health and have long-lasting effects. In some cases, Lyme disease can cause permanent damage to various bodily systems.

By learning some tick identification tips, you’ll be more well-equipped if you fall victim to a bite, giving you a better chance at avoiding Lyme disease and other tick-borne infections that can harm your health now and in the long term.

What are the different types of ticks?

It can be difficult to name every single tick species because, in North America, there are hundreds. Some ticks are primarily found in unpopulated areas that humans do not frequent, so they aren’t as much of a concern. Other species will only feed on wild animals, so they’re also nothing to worry about. However, many ticks will latch on to whatever host they can find, and those are the ones that you should learn how to identify.

The ticks in question are the deer tick, American dog tick, lone star tick, brown dog tick, and Western blacklegged tick. These types will feed on humans and are found in areas that humans often frequent, such as wooded areas and hiking trails.

tick on carpet
Image by makamuki0 on Pixabay: Here’s what you need to know about tick bite identification.

To get a better idea of these ticks, check out our tick identification chart:

Deer tickCommon in the East Coast, upper Midwest, and Great Lakes regionsAdult sized like a sesame seed   Reddish in color with a solid black dorsal shield   Long thin mouthparts
Western Blacklegged tickFound along the West Coast, from Canada to MexicoAlmost identical to the deer tick   More oval in shape
Lone Star tickCommonly found in the southeastern portion of the U.S., but are moving north towards MaineRound body   Reddish-brown in color   Long thin mouthparts   Obvious white dot on the female’s dorsal shield
Brown dog tickSeen year-round in southern states of the U.S.Small and elongated body   Reddish-brown in color   Hexagonal mouthparts
American dog tickFound everywhere east of the Rocky Mountains and in small sections of the West CoastLarger than other ticks   Brown in color   Short and pointed mouthparts   Decorated dorsal shields with white markings and festoons

The Lone Star and American Dog ticks are the easiest to spot because they possess specific physical attributes that set them apart from other ticks.

Is there an easy way to learn tick species identification?

The best way to learn tick species identification is to get acquainted with what different ticks look like and where they frequent. For example, if you know what a deer tick looks like but are in an area this species isn’t commonly found, you likely have nothing to worry about. However, knowing everything there is to know about ticks’ appearance, location, and most active seasons will help you when aiming to identify a tick on yourself or your pets.

How do you tell the difference between male and female ticks?

Ticks are small, so it can be hard to discern between males and females of the same species. However, in some cases, it can be as easy as looking at the scutum – the shell on their backs. Female ticks will have a scutum that only covers roughly a third of their body closer to their head, whereas the scutum in males tends to cover most of their abdomen.

Certain species of ticks also have identifying marks depending on the sex. For example, female Lone Star ticks have a white dot on their dorsal shield, giving you an easy way to identify between male and female ticks of this species.

How do you identify an embedded tick?

If you’ve been out in the great outdoors and find a tick latched onto you when you arrive home, making a confident tick ID can be challenging. However, ticks begin feeding as soon as they bite you and fill up with blood in the process. This leads to engorgement.

Engorged tick identification is much easier because they look starkly different than ticks who haven’t been feeding. While most ticks are reddish-brown, black, or dark brown, their colors change to silver, green-grey, or white once engorged. They will also be much larger than those that are not full of blood from a host.

engorged tick
Image by Catkin on Pixabay: How do you tell if a spot is a tick?

Is it hard to identify tick bites?

Tick bites that occur without the presence of Lyme disease or another infectious pathogen will often resemble bug bites of non-specific origin. For example, if you’re bitten by a tick, you may notice a small bump or redness at the site, the same as you would if a non-poisonous spider bit you.  Tick bites are easier to identify if you contract Lyme disease because a red rash typically surrounds the site like a bullseye.

Is there an app to identify ticks?

If you plan on spending a lot of time outdoors in areas with high tick populations, it’s a good idea to invest in a tick identification app. There are several to choose from, each with pros and cons. The two most notable tick identification apps are TickCheck and eTick.

Identifying ticks is the best way to protect yourself and your family from the infectious diseases they can spread over the course of the next tick season.  

Featured image by Jerzy Gorecki on Pixabay

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