Outdoor enthusiasts beware! Whether you are walking your dog, playing winter golf, enjoying cross country skiing, hunting, or just going out to the woodpile to get wood for your fireplace, you need to know that deer ticks are lurking out there, just waiting for you to make an appearance. Unfortunately for all of us, deer ticks do not disappear during the winter months, and can be quite active all year round.
During the spring, summer and early fall months, the species of ticks you might encounter in different parts of the country can include the deer tick, American dog tick, Lone Star tick, Gulf Coast tick, and the Rocky Mountain Wood tick. And infectious diseases this all-star cast of ticks can transmit to people include Lyme disease, anaplasmosis, babesiosis, bartonellosis, ehrlichiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever, tularemia, and Colorado tick fever.
Fortunately, once we enter the latter part of the fall season, most of these infected ticks disappear, with the notable exception of the deer tick. The reason for this has to do with a phase these ticks go through called diapause. As the average daytime temperatures begin to drop and the days get shorter, these ticks slow down their metabolism and stop looking for a host to feed on. Simply put, they wait out the cold winter months in the refuge of the leaf litter or some similarly protected microenvironment, and generally do not become active again until the following spring.
Regrettably for us, deer ticks do not go into this resting diapause state. Throughout the winter months, the adult female deer tick (about the size of a sesame seed) is looking for a host to get the blood meal she will need to lay her eggs in the spring before she dies. The adult male deer tick generally does not feed on a host, but is looking only to mate with his female counterpart.
The one bit of good news in this bad news scenario is that deer ticks, which are cold blooded invertebrates, will not actively look for a host to feed on if the temperature is below 32 degrees and the ground is frozen or covered with snow. However, given the number of increasingly warm winter days we are experiencing, more and more deer ticks will be looking for a host all winter long. This spells big trouble for anyone who ventures outside during the winter months – which is pretty much each and every one of us.
Deer ticks are waiting for you anywhere there is leaf litter, grass, brush and woodlands, and around your homes where they can sense the carbon dioxide in your breath, the heat of your body, and the vibrations of your steps as you walk. And once you make contact with them, they grab onto you in an instant and start climbing up your clothing until they find exposed skin into which they can insert their mouthparts for a blood meal. There they will stay attached for several days, most oftentimes on unseen areas of the body including the back of your head, hair, armpit, groin, back of the knees, navel, and your back.
Do not make the mistake of thinking you are safe from having to worry about ticks and the tick-borne diseases they carry in the colder winter months. Always be aware of your environment and maintain your guard against ticks when you enjoy outdoor activities. Carefully check yourselves, your children and your pets for ticks after coming in from outside, use insect repellents on your clothing and skin whenever possible, and protect your pets with topical sprays and spot-on products.