May is Lyme Disease Awareness Month. The northeastern United States is rife with the parasites that transmit this disease, and our neighborhoods are in the bull’s eye for infection.

Lyme disease is caused by the bite of an infected tick. In case you haven’t noticed, ticks are thriving and plentiful now. Although we have several different species of ticks in the Newburyport area, only the blacklegged ticks spread the bacteria that cause Lyme disease. Blacklegged ticks in the northeast are also commonly called deer ticks, and their scientific name is Ixodes scapularis.

Despite their tiny size, ticks are powerful in their ability to make us and our pets sick. Just one bite from one little tick, and you or Fido could develop fever and aches.

To protect yourself and your pets, understand what makes ticks tick and prevent them from making you their next meal. The details are fascinating.

Ticks wait in shrubs or tall grass for their next potential meal. They do not jump or fly. Rather, ticks cling to the edge of a leaf with their front legs outstretched, reaching for a host. This is called questing.

During questing, ticks can sense an approaching host. Signals such as foot vibrations, carbon dioxide elevations, body heat, or sometimes even shadows tell a tick that dinner is near. As the host brushes by, grasping hooks on the tick’s front legs cling to hair or fabric fiber, and the parasitic pirate climbs aboard.

You are likely unaware that a parasite is climbing around your body, searching for a suitable place to hunker for a meal. Ticks may attach anywhere, but they tend to climb up, and they like thin skin.

Once the tick has identified a suitable feeding site, it gets to work. It uses sharp claws to tear through skin and flesh, inserting its proboscis, or feeding tube, deep into its host. Despite the sharp daggers, you rarely feel this activity. To avoid detection by its host, ticks numb the area by spitting local anesthetic-like chemicals into its host at the attachment site. Fido is also unaware that he is being prepped for a meal, and you both go on your merry way.

Since this meal will take several days to complete, the tick prepares meticulously to ensure its feeding tube is secure. Microscopic barbs, like fish hooks, cover the feeding tube, making backward motion of the tube difficult. The tick also secretes a cement-like substance to firmly anchor its feeding tube in the host. This helps explain why attached ticks are so difficult to remove.

After hatching from an egg, deer ticks go through three life stages – larva, nymph, and adult. Each life stage requires only one blood meal; therefore, each deer tick has only three meals in its entire lifetime.

Ticks feed off blood – lots of blood. To increase available blood at the attachment site, tick saliva disables blood clotting in that area.

During this blood consumption, the tick’s body swells. Deer ticks in the nymph stage are as miniscule as a grain of sand but swell to the size of a poppy seed after feeding. They are so tiny that they usually finish their multi-day meal unnoticed. Adult deer ticks, before feeding, are the size of a sesame seed but bloat into noticeable blood bags after their meal.

While feeding, ticks drool into their host. If the tick is carrying Borrelia burgdorfori, (the bacteria that causes Lyme disease), the host – Fido or you – become infected during this feeding cycle.

If, however, the host infects the tick, then this tick can transmit Lyme disease during its next life stage. This explains why adult deer ticks are more likely to be infected than nymphs.

Clinical signs of Lyme disease in dogs vary. Classic symptoms include inappetence, lethargy, and limping. Some dogs have subtle signs that may not manifest for months. In rare cases, Lyme disease causes kidney failure and death.
Fortunately for Fluffy, Lyme disease in cats is very rare.

You can help protect Fido from Lyme disease with vaccination and tick prevention. There are many products available that are labeled to kill ticks; some are pesticides and others are FDA-approved medicines. Your veterinarian can advise you on the best product for your dog.

Whatever you use, be sure to protect Fido all year long. A common mistake is to use tick control during summer months only. Deer ticks have a two-year life cycle and do not check the calendar. They are actively seeking a blood meal whenever temperatures are above freezing.

If you find a tick on Fido, don’t panic. Grasp the tick with tweezers near its head, and gently pull it straight out. Dab the area with disinfectant and wash your hands.

Demystifying these crawling critters can help conquer our battle with them.