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What Happens to Ticks in Winter?

Just when you thought you and your pets were safe during winter from parasites that can transmit diseases, think again. Some species of ticks are not just active during the cooler months of fall and winter, but they also start to breed a whole new population continuing the lifecycle and potentially putting our pets and ourselves in danger. While Washington has relatively few tick-borne disease cases reported each year in comparison to some areas of the United States, unfortunately for D.C. residents, the region has among the highest activity of ticks in the nation.

The Two Groups of Ticks

Ticks are parasites that are divided into two groups – hard bodied and soft-bodied, both of which are capable of harboring and transmitting diseases.  They do this by latching onto a human or animal host and by imbedding their mouthparts into the skin, they feed off the victim’s blood.  There are over ten known diseases caused by ticks and affecting humans in the U.S which include Lyme disease, babesiosis; Rocky Mountain spotted fever and anaplasmosis. According to Thomas Mather, a professor of public health entomology and director of the University of Rhode Island’s Center for Vector-Borne Disease, there are lone star ticks coming into D.C. from the south and deer ticks working their way in from the north and many of our suburban areas incurring problems with both species.

While most ticks go into a feeding diapause similar to that of mosquitoes as we enter the fall season, others like the Ixodes scapularis or commonly known as the deer tick commences its feeding activity from fall into spring as long as the temperature is near or above freezing.  Those ticks that do go into diapause slow down as the temperatures begin to reduce and the daylight hours get shorter. Their metabolism slows and the stop looking for a host to provide food. These guys will wait out the cold in a protected microenvironment such as in leaf litter or within a trunk of a tree before becoming active again in the warmer days of spring.

Those large adult stage deer ticks (about the size of a sesame seed) that didn’t find a host before fall will remain active unless the snow or frost hits.  If it does get below freezing, they will bunker down under the snow or garden debris and as soon as it thaws emerge to find a host.  They require a blood meal to prepare for laying her eggs in spring.  While the female tick is on the hunt for food, the male tick which doesn’t generally feed on a human or animal host is looking for a female to mate with.

Ticks in the Winter

Given the change in seasons we have been having, and the warmer days we are experiencing in winter, there is more likely to be a rise in the number of ticks active during this period.  You will find the vast majority of American ticks in residential yards and neighboring outdoor environments where there is leaf debris, grass, shrubs, dense planting and around your home.  This poses a threat to both homeowners within Washington D.C. and those adventure seekers staying in remote cabins in nearby woodlands. Ticks will camouflage themselves anywhere they can sense the heat of your body and the carbon dioxide in your breath or your pet’s for that matter.

Once the tick makes contact with you or your pet, they quickly search for exposed skin where they can suck for blood.  The tick, however, needs to be attached for at least 48 hours before they can transmit infection through their saliva and into your system.  But they do have a clever skill of staying attached in unseen areas such as the armpit, the back of the neck, the groin area, in the hair or behind the knees.

So if you have pets or spend time in the outdoors, it is particularly important even in the cooler months to check yours and your pet’s body carefully looking for adult stage ticks.  This applies to those within residential D.C. and those bunking down in cabins or vacation homes, especially in eastern Washington. Remember to take precautions such as wearing long-sleeved clothing, applying body and clothing repellents and topical products suitable for your pets.   Don’t make the mistake of being flippant about parasites in the colder winter months and maintain your guard whist is enjoying your outdoor activities.