Common ticks in Southern California
Ticks are little guys with big problems. Many species of ticks reside throughout California however the three most common ticks are distant cousins in the Ixodes family that includes, Ixodes Pacificus (Western Black Legged Tick), Dermacentor variabilis (American Wood Tick) andDermacentor occidentalis (Pacific Coast Tick). These ticks are found in moist coastal regions, the Sierra foothills and central valley.
Ticks scout out their hosts by crawling up vegetation near a trail and wait with arms extended on a well-placed grass stem or leaf. When an unintentional animal or human passes by, they climb onto them. Once onboard, ticks literally dig in to the host’s using their needle like mouthparts to puncture the skin and obtain a blood meal.
Although some ticks can cause an intense inflammatory reaction, the tick itself does not cause the severe illnesses associated with ticks. Bacteria living within the tick’s gut are transmitted to the host when the tick draws blood. These bacteria are responsible for debilitating illnesses such as Lyme disease,Tularemia and Rickettsia.
Ixodes Pacificus commonly known as the Western Black Legged Tick is widely distributed in hardwood forests, woodlands within the leaf litter and open habitats such as grasslands. This tick has a lifecycle and appearance typical of ticks in the Ixodes family. The tick has four life stages, egg, nymph, larvae and adult, of which nymphs and adults are capable of transmitting disease. Nymphs look like a poppy seed with four legs and a translucent belly. Unfed adult females are 0.12 inches long with eight legs and a dark brown plate covering a light reddish back. Feeding ticks can expand up to 150% of their body size. This tick is best known for harboring the corkscrewed bacterium, Borrelia burgorferi responsible for Lyme disease. Colorado tick fever, Q fever and tularemia are also associated but less likely.
Dermacentor occidentalis also known as the Pacific Coast Tick is distributed throughout California. These ticks harbor the bacterium Rickettsia rickets the disease causing agent of Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Tularemia, Colorado Tick Fever and the newly discovered 364D Rickettsiosis are equally associated with D.occidentalis.
Dermacentor variabilis, known as the American Wood Tick, is widespread in the US, Canada and Mexico. Notorious hotspots in California are the Coastal areas, Eastern Sierra range and central valley. These ticks carry Anaplasma phagocytophilum and Ehrlichia chaffeensis- causative agents of ehrlichiosis.
Rhipicephalus sanguineus also known as the Brown Dog Tick, is unique in that it can complete its entire lifecycle indoors using dogs as it's preferred host. These ticks are disease vectors forEhrlichia canis and Babesia canis.
If you or your pet is bitten by a tick- remove it immediately. Ixodes Pacificus transmits its bacterial friend, B.burgdorferi after two days of feeding whereas other tick-borne agents can be transmitted within the first day. Ticks are best removed with tweezers or a tick key, but fingers (no squashing!) can also work. Remove the tick by pulling steadily and straight-out, being sure to remove the mouthpiece. Applying alcohol, fingernail polish, petroleum jelly or heat from a lighted match is basically ineffective. However be sure to clean and disinfect the puncture wound. It is also a good idea to contact your physician or veterinarian. Resist the urge to smash the tick so it can be identified and tested for tick borne agents.
If you or your pet begin to display signs of illness such as lethargy, joint pain, rash or enlarged lymph nodes- see your doctor or veterinarian immediately. Untreated tick associated diseases have the potential to damage your heart, vision, respiratory system and mental acuity.