Five answers to questions about wood ticks

A hard shell, long legs, a bad reputation.

Know what I’m talking about?

It’s the wood tick (Dermacentor variabilis), or American dog tick!

More than a dozen tick species can be found throughout Iowa, but the most common is the wood tick. Iowa State University Extension & Outreach has a great publication on wood ticks, blacklegged ticks and deer ticks here.

The wood tick is called a hard-tick, because it has a type of shell on its back to protect it. If you’ve ever tried to kill one, you know exactly what I mean.

Wood ticks are found throughout the state of Iowa, in every county, from late March through August. They are about an eighth-inch in size, up to a half-inch when engorged with blood.

wood tick

Where are wood ticks found?

Perhaps the American dog tick name makes more sense, because wood ticks are found in areas with little or no tree cover, typically. They usually live in tall grasses and low bushes where they will feed on wildlife hosts such as raccoons, skunks, opossums and coyotes. They also commonly attack humans.

Do all wood ticks feed on blood?

Male wood ticks do feed on blood, but they will not become engorged. Female ticks will continue to feed until engorged, and males will actually breed with a female while she is feeding. It can take a week or more for her to become engorged with blood before she drops off of the host and lays more than 4,000 eggs before dying.

Ticks can live for up to two years if left undisturbed.

engorged tick

How do ticks find a host?

Ticks can detect a mammal by odor, body heat, moisture and vibrations. Some species of ticks can even recognize shadows or wait by well-used paths for a host to walk by.

It may seem like ticks can fly or jump, but they can’t. Instead, they will wait on the tips of grasses or leaves with their third or fourth pair of legs holding on and will reach out with their first pair of legs in a position called “questing.” When a host brushes past, it will climb on.

The tick may attach right away, or it may walk around the host looking for a place with thin skin.

Do wood ticks carry disease?

People don’t like ticks for a variety of reasons, including that they will feed on blood, but they are also known to carry disease. Wood ticks can carry a bacteria, Rickettsia rickettsii, which can cause Rocky Mountain spotted fever. However, that disease is rare. They can also transmit a bacteria that causes rabbit fever or can cause paralysis if a female has been attached for days and not found. That paralysis will disappear with the tick’s removal.

The wood tick is not known to carry Lyme disease.

How do I prevent ticks from getting on me?

If you want to keep ticks away, there are some keys prevention methods:

  • Wear long-sleeves and pants. Tuck your pant legs into your socks or wrap duct tape around the open space where your pants meet your boots.
  • Wear light-colored clothing so you can see ticks better if they land on you.
  • Use a tick-specific repellant or permethrin-containing repellants on your clothes. Don’t use permethrin directly on skin.
  • Perform tick checks on yourself and family members when you’ve been in wild areas.

If you do have a tick attached to you, carefully remove it with tweezers, making sure to grab its mouthparts where they enter the skin. Clean and disinfect the wound site.

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