Deer Ticks in New England

Identifying Deer Ticks in Your Home or Business in Boston, MA, CT, RI, ME, NH, and VT

General Information

Blacklegged ticks, informally known as deer ticks, are the most common tick species found in New England. Scientifically classified as Ixodes scapularis, deer ticks pose threats due to their widespread prevalence combined with their abilities to transmit pathogens to humans and survive the cold New England winters.

In addition to affecting humans, deer ticks can compromise the health of other area mammals, including household pets. New England residents should beware of deer ticks particularly during the warmer months of spring and summer, when the risk of disease transmission is highest.

Picture of Deer Tick
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Appearance

What Does a Deer Tick Look Like?
Like all other tick species, deer ticks vary in size depending on their age. Nearly microscopic, the bodies of recently hatched larvae measure less than a millimeter across.

Nymphal deer ticks are typically about a millimeter in length, or roughly as large as a pinhead. As adults, the arachnids (since they have eight legs) generally range in size from a sixteenth to an eighth of an inch.

Females vs. Males
Females have two-toned bodies that are dark brown at the head and reddish-orange at the rear, while males are monochromatic and dark brown all over. After consuming a blood meal, a fully engorged adult female deer tick grows to about a half-inch in length, with her swollen body turning grayish in color.

Habits/Habitat

Where Do Ticks Live?

Shady outdoor areas with ample moisture make ideal habitats for deer ticks. Preferring to remain close to ground level, deer ticks often wait for host animals to pass in brush, shrubs, and tall grass. The parasites also regularly inhabit gardens and grassy spaces bordering wooded areas.

In New England, deer ticks tend to live near the coast or major rivers. Nymphs are commonly encountered during the summer, while adults are most active during the fall and spring. Adults can also emerge during mild New England winters on days when temperatures remain above freezing.

Diet

What Do Deer Ticks Eat?
Deer ticks are obligate parasites that feed on the blood of other animals. Prior to adulthood, larval and nymphal deer ticks primarily use mice, birds, and other small animals as hosts. Nymphs also bite and consume the blood of medium-sized animals and humans.

Adults, while still a threat to humans, generally obtain their blood meals from white-tailed deer. Once attached to a host, deer ticks feed for several days to ingest the amount of blood necessary for development. The parasites typically feed for three days as larvae,four days as nymphs, and up to a week as adults.

Reproduction

Deer Tick Life Cycle

Deer ticks have a two-year life cycle. After consuming the necessary blood meal during the previous fall, an adult female deer tick lays roughly 2,000 eggs in the spring. Larvae hatch during late summer and consume their first blood meal from an appropriately sized host.

After feeding, larvae molt and develop into nymphs, which overwinter until the following spring. Nymphs become active again as the weather warms up and search for suitable hosts throughout the spring and summer.

During the fall, nymphs molt into adults and mate, with females needing to feed on host animals in order to facilitate production of eggs. Though active on warmer winter days, adult females wait until the following spring to lay the fertilized eggs and initiate a new life cycle.

Problems Caused by Deer Ticks

What Problems Can Deer Ticks Cause?

Deer ticks are parasites that feed on the blood of other animals and thus present a high risk for spreading disease. Deer ticks transmit disease-causing bacteria from an infected host to another host while feeding.

Lyme Disease

Lyme disease is the most common and recognized ailment transmitted by deer ticks in New England. Lyme disease can cause:

  • Chills
  • Facial palsy
  • Fatigue
  • Fevers
  • Headaches
  • Joint pain
  • Meningitis
Other Diseases

Researchers estimate that 50 to 60 percent of adult deer ticks in New England are carriers of the disease. The insects can also spread anaplasmosis, babesiosis, and Powassan disease. In addition to wild animals, both humans and household pets throughout New England are at risk for contracting the diseases carried by deer ticks.

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