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How do I identify different ticks?

Tick identification is important. Everyone is worried about Lyme Disease.  So how do I protect myself, my family -and my dog- from this terrible plague?  Knowledge.  Tick repellent. Tight clothing.  Inspections.  But what if you've done all that, and you still find an engorged tick?  You need to be able to differentiate, or identify, between the different tick species to avoid unnecessary worry and unnecessary trips to the vet.

The tick that primarily carries lyme disease is I. Scapularis, also called the Black-Legged Tick, or the Deer Tick. The deer tick is very very very tiny, approximately the size of a fleck of black pepper.  They are very nearly impossible to see on a dog, and can still be difficult to see even when engorged.

The common dog tick can range in size from very small, but clearly visible, to quite large.  Then when they're engorged, they blow up like a big greyish/greenish blob (green or grey color tick).

Two engorged dog ticks. The one on the bottom is on its back.

The Tiny Deer Tick

Shown below are the different stages of I. scapularis, (the Deer Tick), the tick that is primarily responsible for transmitting Lyme disease in the northern and north central United States. Section a shows larval ticks, which are < 1mm in diameter. "b" shows unengorged nymps, which are only 1 to 2 mm in diameter. This is primarily responsible for transmission of Lyme Disease to humans during the late spring and early summer. Section c shows an engorged nymph. Section d shows unengorged adult male (black) and female (orange) ticks, and "e" shows engorged adult male and female ticks. Note that this is greatly enlarged to show detail.

Source: Tufts New England Medical Center

Here is a female deer tick, greatly enlarged, shown with a dime for scale.

Here is a zoomed-in close-up view of the 4 stages of the Deer Tick.
(  Note that the scale is in CENTIMETERS, not inches.)

Finally, here it is in actual size - 1.4 centimeters.  Can you even see the fourth one?
It is the third one, the next-to-smallest one, that is primarily responsible for the transmission of Lyme disease to Humans in late Spring and early Summer.

Here is another good picture to help differentiate between deer ticks and dog ticks.
The pencil gives a good sense of scale and both deer ticks and dog ticks are in the same shot:

Brown Dog Ticks

Black-Legged Ticks (Deer Ticks)

A. Engorged Female

D. Larvae

B. Female

E. Nymphs

C. Male

F. Males


G. Females


H. Engorged Female

Source: http://www.health.state.ri.us/disease/communicable/lyme/facts.htm

Also according to the RI Department of Health, there are two other species of ticks that carry Lyme disease: One is I. Pacificus, or the Western Black-Legged Tick which, and is VERY similar to I. Scapularis, the Black-Legged Tick (Deer Tick). The Western Black-Legged Tick is found primarily in the Pacific US and British Columbia.
(Photo enlarged)

and Amblyomma Americanum, or the Lone Star Tick, (which is found mainly in the southeastern US west into Texas; pockets found in New Jersey, Fire Island, NY, and Prudence Island, RI).  The Lone Star Tick is a little bit larger, with an adult being as large as 1/3 of an inch unengorged, but can be easily differentiated from the Common Dog Tick by a white "Lone Star" dot on the back:
 (Photo enlarged)

"The white dot on the scutum is evident and identifies this tick as a Lone Star tick, which can also carry Lyme disease. Also note the long mouth parts. In all engorged ticks the scutum does not expand and is a good place to start for identification."

Source: Dr. Marc Golightly http://www.path.sunysb.edu/labs/tickpics/TICKpic.htm

There is a wonderful page of very detailed photos of different tick species here: http://entomology.unl.edu/images/ticks/ticks.htm
Iowa State University also has good images, and even a few videos here:
One of the most authoritative spots on the web for Lyme Disease info is Lymenet.org

Here is a map showing where the Centers for Disease Control expects to see Lyme Disease
in the United States. The counties shown in black here account for 90% of all cases.
Click the picture to see a more detailed view by county.

...and here is a map showing how often Lyme Disease actually occurred in 2005 in the United States, County-by-County. From the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

UPDATE: In an amazing coincidence, I was recently bitten by a tick and treated prophylactically with Doxycycline for Lyme Disease. I started this page a few years ago to help people quantify and understand the risks of Lyme Disease, and to identify ticks that had bitten their families.  I had never had a tick really well attached to me or find one engorged.  My wife has had ticks fairly well attached, but also never engorged, and always came out "cleanly" on removal.

On the morning of November 7th, 2005 I noticed a little "sticking" sensation as I was tying my robe, like someone had left a price tag on the inside, though this wasn't a new robe.  I readjusted the belt and tightened and I felt it again. So I opened my robe, and what did I see, but a damn tick embedded in my stomach, with a red circle around it. I thought: "You've GOT to be kidding me!"

So I ask my wife for some assistance, and she came to help.  I pulled the tick and placed it on the square of toilet paper she presented to me for that purpose. I continue to look at my wound, when I hear the toilet flush.  She flushed it down the toilet!!!  So I couldn't identify the tick!  Guess what I thought again?!? I thought: "You've GOT to be kidding me!"  Here I have a detailed page on identifying ticks and now I can't do that, and I've got a red rash with a clear center! (Click the image for a larger view.)

Now I know it takes some time for the "classic" bull's eye (Erythema migrans) rash to appear, but this just looked so inflamed and nasty (the picture really makes it look kind of washed out), and the tick was very small and engorged, so I call my doctor and she says "Come on over". I pay my $15 co-pay, and she writes a prescription for 2 tablets of Doxycycline, which go for about 8 cents each retail... except that there is a minimum charge at all pharmacies nowadys. At mine it's $7.99. So for $23 I get what I want, a couple of Doxycycline tablets.  I take them.  I develop a very bad headache.  Later that day reading a little more about Doxycycline, that's a common side effect that should cause me to call my doctor. Well, I didn't and I was fine, and the bite healed, and now it's 6 months later and no Lyme Disease.

Looking around on the web, I found a picture of a man with a similar looking case to mine: His had progressed a little farther than mine had. He had Lyme disease.

Image: Patient with a classic erythema migrans; 1) site of tick bite, 2) red, radial, expanding edge of rash. 3) central clearing. Source:http://www.cdc.gov/ncidod/dvbid/stari/


While dog ticks are not healthy for your dog, it is the Deer Tick, the Lone Star Tick and the Westerm Black-Legged Tick that carry Lyme Disease. You can easily see dog ticks, but those three are tough to see.  So unfortunately it is sad, and almost funny, but true:

If you can easily see the tick, there's nothing to worry about.
  If you can't see a tick, be very, very afraid.

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