January 10, 2018

Know Before You Go: Tick Habitats and Human Contact

Despite the prevalence of human encounters with ticks, most people don’t really know very much about where ticks typically reside or how they come into contact with humans, pets, and other prey.

Knowing some basic information—about the kinds of environments in which ticks live, when they’re active, and what they typically hunt for and how they attach to hosts—can help you determine how best to limit your exposure to ticks and avoid encounters when you venture out into common tick territories.

Tick habitat could be right outside your door

Generally, tick populations tend to be higher in elevation, in wooded and grassy areas where the creatures they feed on live and roam, including deer, rabbits, birds, lizards, squirrels, mice, and other rodents. However, they can also be found in urban areas as well as on beaches in coastal areas. They also like moist and humid environments, which tend to be closer to the ground—such as among logs, fallen branches, tall brush, and grassy areas. Ticks in the early lifecycle stages—larvae and nymphs—are often found in piles of decomposing leaves under trees.

Not only do these inviting conditions exist in remote wilderness they can be found in parks, fields, picnic areas, and residential areas including your backyard. The following are a few common areas to keep a close eye out for ticks:

  • Wood piles, which can often harbor mice and other rodents
  • High grassy areas
  • Wooded areas
  • Stone walls and other features that may retain moisture
  • Leaf piles and litter
  • Fallen and low-hanging branches
  • Overgrown shrubs
  • Bird feeders (because they can invite other tick-attracting wildlife)
Some ticks prefer to set up house inside homes

Although most ticks prefer the great outdoors, certain species can live and thrive indoors. The brown dog tick, for example, can cause high levels of infestation in homes, dog kennels, and other structures where dogs are present. Soft ticks also tend to reside indoors, typically living in rustic cabins or other dwellings with mice or other rodent infestations. These ticks live in rodent burrows and feed on hosts, including people and pets, while they sleep. Both of these species of ticks are able to reproduce and lay eggs indoors, which is why they can settle in and live within the home environment.

Most ticks, however, prefer to lay eggs on ground soil, so they stay clear of indoor environments. That said, ticks can sometimes end up in your home by attaching to a pet, a person, or items of clothing and hitching a ride into your house. Once they fall off or finish feeding, they’ll likely crawl around looking for either another host or a way outside. Keep in mind that these ticks can lengthen their stay for up to a few days if they find a suitable environment in your home, such as piles of damp clothing on the floor or in hampers.

Ticks can be active year round

Although some tick species prefer warmer temperatures and are more active during spring and summer months, others remain active year round. Adult black-legged ticks, also known as deer ticks, for example, are in fact most active from fall to spring, often after the first frost. In the Northeast region of the United States, populations of these adult ticks start growing in early October and will remain active as long as the temperature remains above freezing and the ground doesn’t freeze or become covered in snow.

The time of day when ticks are most active can also vary from species to species, as some prefer to hunt during the cooler and more humid hours of the early morning and evenings, while others are more active at midday, when it is hotter and dryer.

Knowing the specific types of tick(s) that are most prevalent in your region can help you narrow down and identify specific seasons when they are most likely to be active so you can take appropriate preventive measures. Check with local health departments, park services, or other agencies for information about tick distribution in your area, as well as high-activity seasons, recommended precautions, and preventive measures.

When hunting, most ticks prefer that you come to them

Most ticks take a passive approach to finding their prey, using a wait-and-watch approach called “questing.” They typically climb to the top of a grass blade or near the edges of a bush or branch and wait for potential prey to pass by. When it does, they extend their hooked front legs and latch onto fur, hair, or clothing, which pulls them off their perch and onto the host, where they can begin to feed.

All ticks feed on the blood of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, and some will crawl short distances to pursue hosts when they sense exhaled carbon dioxide, which all mammals emit when they breathe. Certain tick species, however, take a more active role in their pursuit of prey, for example, the lone star tick is an aggressive hunter that has been known to pursue hosts over very long distances.

However, ticks are not as mobile as people think. They do not jump, fly, or drop from trees; instead, they only crawl and climb. They can, however, get transported to new areas while feeding on their hosts. Although ticks are often discovered higher up on the body, they typically attach from lower perches on the ground and then instinctively crawl upward to attach around the head and neck areas because the skin is usually thinner and many animals have trouble reaching these areas to groom them off. Ticks are also often found in the groin, armpit, and other areas where they are typically harder to detect, thereby giving them more time to feed.

Additional information

To learn more about ticks, including where they live and how you can minimize your exposure to them, download the Tick Management Handbook This comprehensive guide was developed by the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station and contains detailed information about ticks and how to reduce risk for tick bites.

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