A Tick's Story

Leaves and tick

I recovered this letter from a tick we found in a dog in mid-January.

Dear Mom,

I am really enjoying living in Madison. After you left me and my 2,500 brothers and sisters in the spring, we hatched into larvae (although I kind of prefer being called a maggot—I think it has a nice ring to it) during the nice, warm summer and immediately found some white-footed mice nearby. Good thinking to lay us near their nest. We all ate our fill of mouse blood and it really filled us up. We couldn’t hold on anymore and dropped into the leaves. It was a soft landing, so don’t worry!

It was really interesting to molt into a nymph. I wish you could have told us what it would feel like. Suddenly we were twice the size as before (as “big as ticks,” so they say, but really barely specks) and had two more legs! That was pretty cool. Now I could hold onto a piece of grass with two legs and wave six legs at passing creatures. I was big enough to stand up to an ant, but remembered you telling me to be good, so I moved aside.

Sadly, I lost track of a lot of my siblings, but several of my sisters and I molted at the same time and tried to stick together. We discovered that we could smell using our front legs and, wow, there are a lot of different smells in the world. Our favorite smell is carbon dioxide—it makes us run to wherever the smell is coming from. Another great smell is ammonia. We discovered it when we saw a big furry creature lift his leg on a tree and let loose a rain shower. I don’t think we’ve ever moved so fast!

It’s disappointing how slow we run compared to big furry things. But we found that if we crawled onto a leaf or little branch, we could wave our arms and yummy things would walk by and we could grab and climb on. Guess I’m glad we’re so small they never know we’re there.

Because all that questing for food made me hungry, I wanted to eat wherever I landed, but some of that furry skin is tough. I had to exert my power to hike up the skin mountain until I found a softer, thinner area. I ended up finding a dark cave that was a little slippery with a wax substance, but it was quiet and good eating in there. Once I was “big as a tick” again, I crawled back out and let go. I was glad I landed in a soft pile of grass because I was pretty high off the ground. I must have gotten my nice, hard shell from your side of the family.

I was surprised to find out I was molting again. I was enjoying my teenage years, eating lots of blood, and now I would have to become an adult. I felt so huge, but still didn’t think anyone really saw me. I was a little disappointed I still only had eight legs, but I’m not sure how I could have fit ten on my body without tripping. I crawled around a lot, questing as hard as I could, but there weren’t many furry creatures to be found. I was getting kind of cold because I just didn’t feel like moving very quickly.

I ran into one of my sisters and was surprised she’d had a boyfriend, gotten married, and was already a widow. I guess they met on a big furry creature, got to know each other over delicious blood meals, decided to get married, and had a honeymoon right then and there. I would have been sad to see my soulmate die so quickly, but sis didn’t think much of it. Maybe that was because she was having hormonal stuff going on—she was pretty darn pregnant when I saw her. I’m not sure how you (or she) did it—that big belly looks uncomfortable! She isn’t due until the spring. Since neither of us had any place to go, we snuggled down under some warm leaves to hang out until the weather warmed up.

Hopefully next spring I will find my mate and enjoy blood meals by candlelight. Although pregnancy doesn’t look comfortable, I’m looking forward to having my own clutch of babies. I appreciated having so many siblings, and I hope I have at least 3,000 babies too!

There are some ticks out there that love telling horror stories. One told me how she bit into a furry creature and suddenly felt all her legs start jiggling, like she was made to do some bizarre dance. She backed out of the feeding hole immediately and fell off the creature. She was still shaking when I saw her and looked like she was about to die. That really scared me and now I’m afraid to grab onto anything with a lot of fur. Creatures that don’t have much fur seem safer. Sometimes they smell of really strong chemicals, but that doesn’t bother me much.

I hope this letter finds you well. I heard some tick say that after all the eggs are born, the mother dies, but I hope he was lying.

Love, your little Ixodes

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It was helpful to find this letter! Ticks can be active in the winter, especially when the winter is mild. They have to take blood meals in order to molt and reproduce. One thing our little tick didn’t mention, and probably didn’t know, is that there was a good chance she was infected with a spirochete bacteria, like Lyme or anaplasmosis, when she fed off the white-footed mouse. Once infected, the bacteria are passed on to the next host.

While feeding, the tick will suck blood, regurgitate some of it back into the bloodstream, then drink some more. The bacteria get into the bloodstream during one of the regurgitations. Because you don’t usually feel a tick when it is feeding, it can be attached for up to 72 hours before becoming fully engorged and falling off.

Ticks don’t just fall from a tree and land on you, they will actively seek you out when they smell exhaled breath or urine. Ticks can just see vague shapes, so they can’t run out and jump on you. Instead they grab onto a leaf or branch, extend their legs out and wait for something to walk by so they can grab on. They usually crawl around until they find a place with thinner skin: ears, necks, etc. When they bite, they inject an anesthetic chemical that numbs the skin so they can eat without anyone noticing them. The deer tick (Ixodes spp) has to feed on three different hosts before laying eggs. This can take up to three years. They can survive the winter and start looking for a host as soon as the weather warms up a little. It’s very important to continue tick preventative care year-round.

There are many effective tick preventative products for dogs, with the newer oral preventatives being more effective than topical ones. These products contain a chemical from the isoxazoline group of drugs. It blocks substances in the nerve synapse of the tick (and fleas) that conveys messages between nerves. The end result is uncontrolled activity of the nervous system, leading to paralysis and death of the tick.

Maybe a letter from a flea will be found next, but those little suckers hop away so quickly it’s hard to recover them at all!

Photograph by Brenda Eckhardt

Lori Scarlett, DVM, is the owner and veterinarian at Four Lakes Veterinary Clinic. For more information, visit fourlakesvet.com .