What is a tick?

The adult tick has eight legs. Ticks can feed on a variety of animals including birds, amphibians, reptiles and mammals. Tick encounters have been increasing recently due to more people getting out and enjoying nature, more landscaping favorable to tick habitat being incorporated into public areas and the influx and spread of the deer tick. With the increasing incidence of Lyme disease, Mainers should be in the habit of doing tick checks after frequenting tick territory.

As ticks go through their life stages (larva, nymph and adult), they usually change hosts. The seed or larval ticks will attach to small animals and be dispersed by them. Nymphs will climb up higher plants to latch onto larger hosts. Adult ticks can perch on plants for months waiting for a host to come by. Ticks may also seek prey by detecting heat and carbon dioxide emanating from a potential host. Adult female ticks can feed for several days up to a month.

On humans, ticks migrate around the hairline, the area behind the ears or in the armpits. On dogs, they attach to the ear, shoulder and upper leg areas. It takes five to six hours for a tick to become firmly attached and up to 10 days for it to become fully engorged with blood. The female needs a blood meal in order to lay her eggs. Ticks have been known to survive for one year without a blood meal.

The deer tick (Ixodes scapularis) is a small tick mostly inhabiting the coastal areas of York and Cumberland Counties. It is capable of transmitting Lyme disease. The early signs of the disease show up as a rash at the bite site and then flu-like symptoms. Untreated cases may lead to arthritic conditions and possible neurological problems. Not all deer ticks carry Lyme disease causing spirochete (bacterium), and a tick must remain attached to the host for at least 24 hours in order to infect the host.

American dog ticks (Dermacenter variabilis), also called wood ticks, are larger than deer ticks and the unengorged female has a whitish shield on its back. This tick readily attaches itself to humans and is one of the most commonly encountered ticks in Maine. The highest populations of the wood tick are found in southern Maine — in Oxford County and surrounding areas. However, ticks have turned up recently in great abundance in areas north of Oxford County and into Kennebec County. Wood ticks are most likely to be found in open areas with tall grass or brush. Adults are first noticed in late April and remain to abundant through June. Numbers seem to decline sharply after that, but some occur all summer.

The brown dog tick (Rhipicephalus sanguineus) is rarely found in Maine. It is transported here from areas south of Massachusetts on pets and occasionally on clothes. Dogs are the brown tick’s most common host and source of blood meals. This is why the tick is most often found in kennels and pet beds. Rats and mice may also be intermittent hosts. This tick does not overwinter in Maine.


Ticks can be controlled only on very limited basis. The most important consideration is personal preventive measures such as wearing full-length garments that are tight around the wrist, ankle and neck and treating exposed areas with a repellent. A permethrin-based repellent is available for treating clothes. Adults should check themselves and children immediately after visiting a tick-infested area. If possible, avoid such areas.

Keep brush and grass around your home cut short. Keep stray dogs out. Keep pets out of tick infested areas. Repellent pet collars may help keep pets tick free. Infested pets can be freed of ticks with an insecticide available from pet shops. Outside, pet shelters and areas around the home may be treated with carbaryl, deltamethrin, cyfluthrin or permethrin. Do not allow pets in the treated area until it has been dry for 24 hours.

How to remove a tick

To remove an attached tick, grasp the tick close to the point of attachment and exert a slow and steady pull. The tick will eventually disengage. Disinfect the bite site.

Information provided by James F. Dill, pest management specialist, and Clay A. Kirby, insect diagnostician, University of Maine Cooperative Extension