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Dealing with Wood Ticks (dermacentor andersoni)
While on a Hike or Climb in Arid Regions of the Western United States
"The Wood Tick as an adult is an 8 legged creature that most people who spend time in the great outdoors in the inland regions of the western United States have personal one-to-one experience with. Depending upon the region that a person visits, even within the same state, the population of ticks can vary a great deal in size and coloring. Some examples:
- A Wood Tick in Baker City, Oregon, for example, will most likely be dark brown with little to no mottled coloration on them, and will be ‘average’ in size. (Wood tick females always have a white ‘shield’ on their scutellum – the area on their backs posterior to their mouthparts.)
- A Wood Tick in Burns, Oregon, on the other hand, just a 3 hour drive from Baker City, will usually be very tiny, almost half the size of the same species of tick found in Baker City! Their coloring has more of a caramel tinge to it and the males can be slightly mottled in color.
- Traveling further inland, to Montana, the wood ticks found are like giants compared to the Burns and Baker City area ticks. It is true what ‘they’ say – They grow them big in Montana! The female ticks are usually a dark almost chocolate brown, and the males have more of an exotic appearance - the mottling can be quite striking.
Even though the appearances can vary strikingly, they are all dealt with in the same way. The preferred Host of an adult Wood Tick is a large animal such as deer, elk, cattle, horses, bear, wolves and coyotes. Given the “choice”, they do not prefer humans and will often crawl onto humans and drop off unnoticed. However, even though we wish it was a hard and fast rule, it is simply not, and humans do at times find themselves with a Wood Tick or two embedded in their flesh!
Be aware of the wives tales regarding ticks - here are some facts to help you out:
- Ticks do not even have heads, so if you remove one, you cannot “leave the head behind”
- The mouthparts of ticks are serrated to help them to stay attached to the host. Once they are attached, they will stay attached until physiologically ready to pull out, and cannot be coaxed out with fire, grease or lightening! (well, maybe lightening)
- After attachment, female ticks exude a clear, glue-like substance to help them stay attached to the host while feeding. When a tick is removed after having been attached for a while, this glue will come off with the tick and it is sometimes mistaken for the host’s “skin.” It is simply not skin, it is just glue. Don’t let it freak you out!
What’s the best way to remove a tick?
Please be aware that this is my opinion only, and my experience involves having removed many thousands of ticks from myself and animals…remove ticks at your own risk…take responsibility for yourself…I am not liable for any complications you may experience involving removal of ticks, reaction to a tick bite or illness from a tick bite.
Having said that, here’s what I do and have found to be the easiest way to remove a tick that is attached: (It takes about 1/10 of a second to remove a tick)
You will find one of two scenarios upon discovering a tick attached – one is that the tick is flat and firm, the other is that the tick is roundish, soft, and maybe even grey in color. The flat tick is one that is either a male, or a female that has not ‘engorged’ with blood yet. The large roundish, puffy tick is an engorged female. She is engorging on blood in order to convert this blood into ‘food’ for her developing eggs. Don’t worry; she will not lay her eggs on her host. A fully engorged female will drop off of her host and find a suitable protected site in the wild to lay her eggs.
Removal of both scenarios is the same!
Take a firm grasp of the tick as close to the host’s skin as you can – I usually use my thumb and index fingertips. In doing this, you will be lifting the tick slightly.
1. Try not to squeeze the body of the tick, and quicker is better.
2. Pulling like you mean it, just simply pull the tick straight out. Try not to lift it perpendicular to the skin, just pull it out in the opposite direction that it went in.
What now? I got it out!
This depends upon your individual situation. Most people will delight at this point in burning the tick or smashing it between two good hard rocks. Some people will save the tick in a zip lock type bag, or film canister or some such container (be cautious of pill bottles – they should be rinsed thoroughly first to rid them of medicine) so that they can send them to their state epidemiologist. All states vary in this regard. And I imagine there are those that will give their tick a good hard fling to be released back into the wild.
Regardless of which method you choose, the next thing you need to take care to do religiously is to monitor the site of the bite for any unusual swelling, redness, or rash. Also monitor your health, don’t pass off a fever following a tick bite to the flu – it is better to be cautious (but not paranoid) in this regard.
I would like to AVOID coming in contact with ticks if I can – advice to help in that regard:
Depending upon the geographical location, adult wood ticks are a spring occurrence. “Spring” is used in a relative sense here. Spring in the Burns, Oregon area may mean February, where spring in an alpine situation may mean June or July. A good rule of thumb is that when the snow is mostly melted in lower elevations, or rapidly receding from alpine areas, it is possible to find active ticks.
Wood ticks require a couple of things for success – warmth, humidity, food, and each other (for mating). Therefore, if you have found one tick, there are most likely more in the same area. Warmth is relative, but I have found that if it is 40 degrees F, the ticks – although moving slowly – can be active. When the temperature reaches 80 degrees F or higher, they will usually retreat to a cool spot until the heat abates.
Habitat varies widely with the region. In areas with sagebrush in early spring, the ticks will often be found questing for a host on sage or taller grasses. Since they require humidity, they will occasionally travel down the vegetation to gather the moisture they require from the base of the vegetation. The drier the air, the more trips to the ground they have to make. Later in the spring, I have seen them questing on not only sage, yucca, juniper, grasses, deciduous bushes, and also moving actively across warm rocks and soil. Be particularly careful in brushing up against vegetation overhanging a trail – whether it be a game trail or a human-made trail. In the open range in sage, you are on your own. They can be ANYWHERE.
In an alpine situation, I do not have firsthand experience, however I have heard the same story again and again – hikers (or horseback riders) – stopped at the snow line to rest upon some nice warm rocks in the sun, and the rocks were ~covered~ with ticks. I am skeptical about how many ticks it takes to give the impression of covering a rock, but it could be anywhere from 5 to 50! Hmmm… may be a good idea to look before you sit, and just be observant! Even if ticks are not on “your” rock, they may sense your presence and make their way to you from many feet away.
In pine forests, ticks usually occur in ‘hot spots.’ This is tick terminology for a microclimate that seems to favor ticks. It is usually an area that receives some spring time sun and warmth, perhaps with rocks to hold heat. Often there is a game trail or bedding area nearby, and is protected from prevailing winds. The hot spots can be a mile wide or long (such as a gully or canyon), or just a couple feet long (a patch of ground that is extra protected). Ticks are good at gravitating toward favorable environments. Yes, wood ticks can also be resting in pine trees and catch a breeze downward upon sensing a host moving through its area. I have collected many a tick this way.
The wood tick season wanes when the weather turns warm and dry for long periods of time. However, many areas of the inland Northwest and Western states also host another tick that looks to the naked eye just like the Wood Tick. This tick is Dermacentor variabilis, or the Dog Tick – NOT to be confused with the Brown Dog Tick commonplace in the eastern U.S. This tick has similar habits, but it’s preferred host as an adult is a dog or dog ‘relative.’
We also have another tick in many areas of this inland Northwestern U.S., which is Dermacentor albipictus, commonly called the “winter” tick. This one lives its entire life cycle (larvae, nymph and adult) on one host – often elk, moose, deer, cattle, horses. It attaches to the host as a larva (pin head size) in the fall, feeds and stays warm on the host, resting until it’s ready to feed again in late winter at which time it is a nymph. It will then feed some more on the same host and molt into an adult, mating with other adults on the same host. When the females are replete, they drop off of the host, lay their eggs and the cycle starts again next fall.
Although this description of these three ticks is by no means exhaustive, and other ticks to live in these areas, these three ticks are the most common, and the Wood Tick is the tick most often encountered by hikers, climbers and horseback riders in back country. Best advice – just monitor yourself and your companions occasionally and be aware!"
A Contributor sent me this information recently, specific to the Western Region, for my Website. She works for a Government Agency, monitoring ticks! She has "removed many thousands of ticks from humans and animals."
-- Robert Speik
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