About the Wood Tick

By PetMD Editorial on Jun. 7, 2016

Wood Tick - Dermacentor variabilis

The Wood tick, also known as the American dog tick or just plain dog tick, is a particularly worrisome species of tick that carries several diseases that are dangerous to humans and pets. The wood tick is one of the most common carriers of diseases among dogs, most notably Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia (Rabbit Fever), and tick paralysis.

Wood ticks are part of the hard tick family and are distinguished by their hard shields, or scutums, and prominent heads.

Identification of the Wood Tick

Wood ticks are highly colorful and pretty easy to recognize. They have grayish patterns on their bodies and males will have a mottled grey coloration along their backs. American dog ticks (wood ticks) are often mistaken for Deer ticks, which carry Lyme disease. The American dog tick does not carry Lyme disease.

The American dog tick also has a wide, oval body with a flattened top. Females are generally larger than males, measuring about 5 mm long when not engorged (with blood), and 15 mm long and 10 mm wide when engorged. Males measure just 3.6 mm long when not engorged.

Deer ticks (also called blacklegged ticks) are much smaller than Wood ticks and can be distinguished by their—you guessed it—black legs.

Lifecycle of the Wood Tick

Wood ticks are a three-host species of tick that goes through four distinct lifecycles: eggs, larvae, nymph, and adult. 

After hatching from its egg, a tick must feed on the blood of a host at every life stage in order to survive. The newly hatched tick is called a larva, or seed tick. Tick larvae have just six legs and are about 1/8 inch in size.

Since ticks can’t jump, the larva must stand on blades of grass or perch on vegetation until a warm blooded mammal walks by, at which point it latches on. This behavior is called “questing,” and looks like the tick is trying to stand up to grab the sky. Once the larva has fed on its initial host, it will drop to the ground and molt into an eight-legged nymph.

Nymphs then lie in wait until a second warm-blooded host wanders by, like a raccoon, possum, or other large animal. The nymph will then feed for a few days until it becomes engorged with blood. It again drops to the ground and molts into an adult tick.

Adult ticks will hunt for a third and final host, preferring large animals like deer or dogs, where they will be able to feed, breed, drop off, and lay eggs. Once the female has laid a few thousand eggs she dies. Depending on the species of tick, the entire lifecycle can last anywhere from three months to eighteen months. In northeastern states the average wood tick life cycle is two years.

Habitat and History

American dog ticks can be found in dense wooded areas, shrubbery, tall grasses, and wherever domestic animals or livestock live. Its native range includes the eastern two-thirds of the United States and the West Coast. They like humid, outdoor environments. If you find a wood tick indoors, it probably dropped off of the host animal after becoming engorged.

Ticks are most closely related to arachnids, like spiders and mites. They remain inactive during the winter months, becoming active again with the warmer spring weather, which is also when females will lay their eggs. If adult females cannot find a suitable host during the fall, they will turn dormant and survive in leaf litter until the next spring. This is why it’s important to conduct tick checks after being outside in the woods, no matter what season it is.

Depending on the area of the country you live, the wood tick will have a different peak activity time. It’s important to keep your lawn trimmed and any leaf litter clear. If you’d like to learn more about ticks, including how to keep them off you and your pets, check out our 10 facts about ticks article.

What to Do if Your Pet Has a Wood Tick

First things first: don’t panic. It takes between 6 to 8 hours of feeding for a tick to transmit any diseases it may be carrying, so the sooner you remove it the better.

Always wear gloves and use a set of tweezers to firmly grasp the tick by the head. Don’t pull the tick by the body or its head will dislodge and remain in your dog or cat, where it can transmit an infection. Instead, use a steady upwards motion and pull until the tick’s head releases. Then, throw the body into a glass jar and call your veterinarian. Describe the tick to your vet and ask if they’d like you to bring it in to be tested for diseases.

You can learn more by visiting our complete guide to tick removal and disposal.

After removing the tick from your pet, swab the bite site with an alcohol swab or other antiseptic and put a dab of Neosporin on the skin. Keep an eye on your dog or cat for the next couple of weeks to monitor for symptoms of a tick borne infection.

Here are some tips to prevent your pet from becoming tick prey in the first place:

  • When going for a walk with your dog, always stay in the center of the path and watch out for tree branches that hang above your head. Ticks like to drop from trees and shrubs onto their prey.
  • Keep your pet out of leaf litter and piles of branches or leaves. This is another place that ticks like to lie in wait.
  • Always conduct a tick check on yourself and your pet after coming home from an outdoor adventure.  Make sure to check inside ears, in between paw pads, inguinal regions (inner thigh where it meets the body), in any folds of skin and around the vulva in females.  Ticks like to hide in these places since they are warm and humid.
  • Long-haired pets are more prone to getting ticks because there is more hair for the tick to grab onto. Always brush your pet after an excursion or walk to remove any hangers-on.
  • Keep the edges of your yard clean and clipped. Ticks like to live on the fringe of yards and woods, so keeping yours trimmed and free of debris will help to prevent ticks from getting into your yard and onto your pets.

Image: I, Gary Alpert [GFDL, CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

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