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Busting myths about ticks - part I

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K-State veterinarian Michael Dryden, an expert on ticks, talks common myths about the pests and provides advice for protecting yourself and your pets.  

A walk through the woods, a fishing trip, or an evening playing in the yard with your children are situations with the potential to encounter dozens, even hundreds of blood-sucking pests known as ticks. Ticks can be a problem year-round, but they pose the most threat in warmer summer months. These disease carriers could be harmful to humans and pets alike.  

Myth No. 1: A tick is an insect.  

A tick is not an insect, Dryden said, but rather, an arachnid.  

"A spider is an arachnid, so a tick is closely related to a spider," he said. "What's the difference? Basically, insect adults have six legs, and arachnids as adults have eight legs. They're both arthropods, but there's a difference."

Worldwide, there are 400 to 450 species of ticks, and approximately 90 of those species live in North America, Dryden said. Most ticks in Kansas and surrounding states are generalists, meaning they aren't host-specific.

Dryden said ticks seem to be feared more by people than fleas, probably because of the awareness ticks can transmit diseases. But "fleas are bad too."

"They're blood-sucking parasites as well. They certainly can cause a lot of damage and harm, and kill animals. But a lot of people tend to put up with fleas to one extent or another. You get a few ticks on an animal, and people seem to be more concerned."

Myth No. 2: Ticks jump out of trees to land on their hosts.

Many people believe ticks jump out of trees and land on them, but it turns out they are physically unable to do that.  

Ticks undergo questing -- an ambush strategy -- to find their next victim. When questing, they crawl up low shrubs, bushes or blades of grass, for example, anchor themselves with their hind legs, reach their front legs in front of them and wave those legs in the air to detect a host.

"Those front legs contain Haller's organs, which are heat and carbon dioxide receptors. They wave them around in the air and try to detect an animal or human going by. As you brush up against them, they grab on."

"They can't leap. They can't jump. They have no physical mechanism to do that. There's no evidence that ticks climb way up into trees," he added. "Some of these ticks, like the ones that transmit Lyme disease, have no photo receptors. They can't see. They live their entire life in the dark."

Most ticks like shaded areas, such as tree canopies, Dryden said. The Lone Star tick common in eastern Kansas is one species that needs a deciduous forest canopy to survive hot summers and cold winters. Tick numbers increase dramatically under the tree canopy. Also, large whitetail deer populations tend to drive high numbers of ticks to a specific area.  

"The ticks get on you, and they often crawl up the back of your pants and shirts. The first piece of bare skin they hit is right on the back of the neck. We reach around, feel them and look up. The reaction and why we think they fall from trees is perfectly normal."  

Myth No. 3: Apply heat to a tick to get it to come out.

Applying heat to a tick to get it to release from the skin is a bad idea and could make the host more susceptible to getting a tick-transmitted disease, Dryden said. The first thing to do is pull it off. Using tweezers can help, but if none are available, people should grab the tick as close to the skin as possible and pull it straight off without twisting or irritating it.

"Most people don't understand that these ticks generally transmit the pathogens -- the viruses, bacteria, protozoa -- to us in their saliva. If you irritate the tick with a match, Vaseline, whatever it may be, one of the first things the tick does when it's irritated is it salivates more. It starts regurgitating. If it hasn't passed a pathogen to you yet, now you've basically ensured that it's going to."  

Generally, getting the ticks off within 24 to 48 hours dramatically reduces the risk of obtaining a tick-transmitted disease. Some diseases could be transmitted earlier than 24 hours under some circumstances, but the odds are in the host's favor if the tick comes off within a day.

Next week's article will bust three more myths about ticks.

Stacy Campbell is agriculture Extension agent in Ellis County.

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