Ticks, article and experiment

NOTICE: I get a lot of emails where people asking me what should they do as they, or their pes have been bitten. Please, don’t hessitate and go and visit an expert! This article is of informative nature, and I am not a doctor. Ticks can be very dangerous pests, and if you or your pet were bitten by one, searching assistance of an expert (qualified doctor or a veterinarian) is only right thing to do. If you don’t do so, there is a possiblity of infection of you or your pet with some of the dangerous diseases ticks can bear.

Ticks are parasites that live on a host organism, and which can infect that host organism with a number of different diseases. A man or any other higher mammal (such as a dog, a cat or a cow) can serve as a host to a tick.

This article is somewhat of experimental nature. It is based upon my personal experience dealing with ticks (I have a rather furry dog which acts like a tick magnet).

In one of our walks, I found a big tick in my dog’s hair. When I looked better, I discovered that there was yet another tick hanging on the first one. I found all this very interesting, so I took my finding home, observed them for a while, took several photographs and wrote an article about them. This is a revised version of the original article that I wrote in 2003.

The term “tick” in the article mostly refers to “dog tick,” which is the most common tick in Europe.

Types of ticks and some basic facts about a common tick

The Latin name for ticks is “Ixodides“. Ticks are arthopoda belonging to the order of Acari (maggots).

Ticks are related to spiders (they both have eight legs). They are two to three centimeters long, and are yellow or brown. There are about 300 species of ticks.

Ticks are divided into two families:

  • Ixodidae – “hard” (hard exoskeleton) ticks, usually found in thick growth areas
  • Argasidae – “soft” ticks (usually found near or around human habitats)

The adjective “hard” perfectly describes the members of the Ixodidae family. A tick which has transformed (in physical appearance, thickness of its carapace) due to sucking host’s blood is extremely hard to destroy when using simple mechanical force.

Female and male tick on the bottom of the jar.

Female and male tick on the bottom of the jar.

Ticks are very dangerous for human, as well as for animals, because they act as carriers for various diseases caused by protozoa, rickettsia and viruses. All ticks are parasitic organisms. Since they suck blood in order to sustain their existence, their mouth area is well adapted to the task. The harpoon-like mouth structure cuts into the host’s skin and protrudes hooks into it, which makes ticks extremely hard to remove. Their “jaws” are set into motion by an innate reflex. If a tick feels nearby movement, it will attach itself firmly to the hosts skin and will not let go, at least not until its head is detached from the rest of the its body, which in turn can cause an infection in the host organism. If they are not powdered or coated with a substance that can choke them prior to trying to pry them out, they will eject their insides into the host organism hence causing an even worse infection.

Female ticks from the Ixodidae family can often be found on the skin of people and animals. During their life cycle and their different stages of development, these ticks can change several hosts. The best known representative of this group is the common tick or dog tick – Ixodes ricinus. It is spread all over Europe, it lives in grass and bushes, and it will attach itself to various animals and even man. It is a carrier of piroplasmosis, spirochetosis, encephalitis and other diseases. When a female tick is well fed it will swell to about 200 times its original size and volume, and then drop to the ground where it will lay its eggs and die afterwards. Its larvae will then continue their life cycle by attaching themselves to lizards, birds and smaller mammals to feeding on their blood. Only after they fully undergo the last stage of their development, the larvae (at this time transformed into a fully grown insect) will attack larger mammals. The tick you will find on your body or on your four-legged pet is therefore already a seasoned veteran.

Another species of tick that can usually be found on birds, and less frequently on man and other mammals, belongs to the Argasidae family.

The Persian tick, for example, (which is spread over Africa, Iran, South Caucasus and China) is a parasite that is found exclusively on fowl and is a carrier of bird spirochetosis.

Ornithodorus moubata found in tropical Africa transmits African typhoid fever to man.

Still, although ticks serve as carriers for many diseases, those diseases are usually not very harmful.

A tick usually needs a relatively long time period to successfully transmit a disease (about 24-36 hours). This incubation period happens because bacteria need fresh blood in order to fully develop and multiply. When the parasite starts sucking blood, bacteria start multiplying.

Bacteria can reach the critical number needed to infect a man about 24-36 hours after the tick first attached itself to the host. It is in no way dangerous to the host organism if the ticks head remains stuck in the host’s skin because the primary source of the bacterial infections is the tick’s insides which it may eject into the hosts body.

The head itself is easy to remove by using a sterilized needle. Ticks do not attach themselves to the skin in a spiral manner, but simply push their head into the skin. Ticks use their harpoon-shaped proboscis to attach themselves to the host’s skin.

Dog tick

The female tick attaches itself to a dog; when it is comfortable and is feeding, it uses its scent to attract a male tick. The male tick is small and black and it will attach itself to the host in the close proximity of the female tick in order to mate.

Some time after the mating, the male lets go and starts moving through dog’s hair looking for a new partner. Also, sometimes the male tick will stick to the female tick for a long period of time.

The fertilized female produces growth hormones and starts growing rapidly. While feeding it takes all the nutrients it needs from the host’s blood and will not secrete the waste byproducts through its digestive system, instead it will dump it all back into the host. This will cause further infections, and the fresh influx of blood into the infected area of the skin will make it easier for the female tick to feed.

When you see a pea sized tick (a female), you know that it has already sucked the amount of blood a few times the size of its stomach.

The male tick climbs onto the female and places itself symmetrically in respect to the position of female ticks legs

Upon feeding, the female’s stomach will be full of nutrients derived from blood. The female tick will then drop off, produce a few hundred poisonous eggs (which even the ants won’t try to eat), and die.

Babeiosis (piroplasmosis) is a disease that is deadly to dogs, but it can be diagnosed easily and in time to save the dog. The infected dog will be cheerless and weak. By the time you notice blood in the dog’s urine, you may still have enough time left to help your dog, but sometimes it may already be too late by then.

When you note some of the abovementioned symptoms, you should urgently take your dog to the vet’s for the life-saving shot. You must not run with the dog to the veterinarian; you need to drive it in or carry it there. The dog is not supposed to run or walk because its heart may stop due to the lack of oxygen. After the illness, the dog should not strain itself for a period of three weeks because its organism, and especially the blood, must first recover from the illness.

Babeiosis is found in people as well. Some may have it without ever knowing it. The symptoms are pain in wrist area and other rheumatic ailments. If you have a strange rash on your skin looking similar to an insect bite, there is a possibility that you may have been bitten by a tick. If the bite is spotted in time, it will be relatively easy to stop any further complications. It gets much more complicated and dangerous if you conceive encephalitis. Luckily there is a cure (vaccine) available.

How to locate a tick?

Ticks can usually be found on the front of the dog’s body because of the large number of muscles that are located in that area making it well supplied with blood. Ticks can also be found on the dogs head, on the entire neck area, and on the dog’s front legs. Just imagine a two equal parts of a dog – front and rear. Ticks will usually gather on the half where the head and front legs are.

You should look for ticks by gently moving the entire palm of your hand through the dog’s hair. If you come across a tick, you’ll feel a small lump. This way you can find even a tick that has not yet attached itself to the host.

A small warning: do not make a mistake and think that a dog wart is a parasite… Smiley Warts look really strange on dogs. They are big and hidden in the hair.

Tick found on a dog

When taking your four-legged pet for a walk, you should always check its paws for ticks. 90 per cent of ticks get to your dog coming from the grass and low bushes. If you check the dog’s legs from time to time you might discover black “spots” on them. Those “spots” will often turn out to be ticks. A “spot” is usually the size of half a square centimeter.

A tick is surprisingly unnoticeable on a man. Ticks like to remain close to the genitals, so after taking those nice walks in the countryside, you should give yourself a self examination (while taking a shower, for an example).

Removing a tick

A tick will instinctively attach itself to the host quite firmly and if you want to remove it, you should try not to make the tick aware of your intentions. Luckily, this will not be all that difficult. Shellfish, for example, have a similar survival mechanism. If you ever played with a shellfish as a child, you already know that it will close firmly when it senses danger, when you start touching it or when it feels unusual motion of water.

The degree of tolerance is a key to the ticks. Ticks are not as sensitive as shellfish, because they live on the skin and beneath the fur which means that they are accustomed to a lot of motion. A dog will typically lie down, roll on the ground, scratch itself and do other things that dogs normally do – ticks won’t mind. When looking for a tick imitate the movements that a dog, cat, cow etc. would normally make.

When you do find the parasite in your pet’s hair, gently, as if not on purpose –  (like a dog would do Smiley – separate the hair around the parasite. Then swiftly pin the blood sucking creature with two fingers, pressing mostly at its head, and pull it out.

The size of a female bloated by feeding.

You may also find special tweezers used to remove ticks. You can buy them in pet shops. Pen-shaped tweezers are designed in such a way that they allow you to get around the tick’s body and get hold of its head close to the skin. Gently turning the tweezers to the left and right is enough for the tick to detach itself, and then you can gently pull it out.

It is no good trying to suffocate them with oil (they can survive for quite a while without air), poison them with insecticides, stupefy them with petrol or alcohol, and burn them with cigarettes and the like. You might manage to detach the tick and easily remove it after applying alcohol or any other easily evaporating substance. However, at the moment of release the tick’s whole body will relax as a balloon and dump its insides into the host.

A small tick that has not yet bloated from feeding is very hard to destroy after being pulled out. It is flat and very hard.

The experiment

During a regular examination of my dog’s hair I stumbled upon two ticks; a female and a male, who later became the main protagonists of this little “experiment”.

After I discovered and consequently removed the two unwanted guests, the big, bloated female kept holding firmly onto a piece of coagulated blood that was stuck on my dogs hair.

After the initial shock and revulsion had passed, I noticed that there was another, smaller tick symmetrically attached to the big one. At first, I thought that this was a little unusual. “Could it be that they actually suck on each other’s blood?” Of course, that was not the case, but at the time I would not have been surprised if it were.

The small tick attached itself to the big one from below, head to head with legs intertwined, remaining in that position for the entire duration of my journey home (which took 5-10 minutes). I probably wore a pretty disgusted expression during my voyage home. I was transporting the ticks by holding the hairs with the ticks. It is interesting to note that it took the female tick almost 30 minutes to finally let go off the dog’s hairs. The female tick finally let go of my dogs hairs when it figured out that it was no longer located on the hosts body (because of the change of temperature or something).

It conducted the entire experiment and took all the photos right there on my desk, covered with printing paper. (Thank the Lord that you were not in my shoes at the time. It is hard to believe how much anguish one can feel by simply observing a tick. The parasite has got eight legs and if it is hungry, i.e. not bloated as a result of feeding on somebody’s blood, its movements are frightfully fast.)

Ticks were held in a position which was best suited for
transportation and possibly even mating…

Ticks seem to use their two articulated front legs to attach themselves to the surface on which they are “walking”, and they use the other six legs as support while walking. The front legs are hook-like appendages used for walking, but all of its legs are equally sharp. Apart from the proboscis, front legs seem to be crucial for anchoring firmly on to the host.

Ticks move with incredible speed. Small, pointed and articulated legs allowed the male tick to climb the smooth wall of a glass jar all the way to the top. I had to shake the jar four or five times to make it fall down.

Try to compare the size of a tick to the size of a man. Then compare their respective speeds of movement and their relative grip strength. If a man (typically weighing 75 kg and being 180 cm tall) should have the tick’s characteristics (strength and such), he would be able to successfully climb a glass hemisphere of 100 m from the inside, walk calmly on the edge and hold on to it so strongly that an earthquake ranked 7 on the Richter scale could not make him fall down. Each of the tick’s leg has six joints and a root, which explains this parasite’s great mobility.

It is a different story with the female tick. Eight little legs seem to be provisionally attached to the stomach which is way too big and colored sickly brown. However, when laid on its stomach, the satiated female is still quite agile, but not quite as agile as before getting bloated.

The bloated female is able to turn on its stomach using the front legs to help her rise on a slightly rough or uneven surface. The female ticks head is small and almost unnoticeable on the stomach, while a hungry female has a head compactly integrated with the rest of the body. You can guess its position only from looking at the distribution of legs.

I noticed some sort of a white tentacle on a few small ticks I found in my dog’s hair. This white tentacle sticks out one quarter of a millimeter from the tick’s mouth area and is comprised of a proboscis with harpoon like hooks and two blood pumps.

This picture shows a male tick calmly walking on the smooth side of a jar.

Ticks do not have a fragmented body. They are more or less made of one piece. At any rate, the fragmentation of the body would be of no use to a tick. When engorged on blood, it gets deformed wholly, which makes it hard to remove. The transformation includes the legs – which move away from their starting position by almost 6-8 millimeters.

Ticks do not have a head in the regular sense of the word, but instead they have a mouth area which protrudes from the rest of the body. The tick’s simple eyes are placed on its back. We do not know how well a tick can see and to what extent those eyes are functional, because some species of ticks lost eyes completely. Ticks probably use some other senses for finding a host. Their sense of smell must be well developed.

The female tick had a total of three holes on its stomach which were not mentioned in any of the literature.

Although ticks are not “ordinary” bugs such as wasps, bumblebees or butterflies, there are some black spots to be noticed on their bellies, that I believe may be parts of a respiratory system. Ticks are team players, which was a really shocking discovery. I was almost sure that a creature like that would be a loner and that each tick would go its own way after mating. This was obviously not the case.

The first time that I discovered that the two parasites were cooperating was when I took them home. The male was holding on to the female tick all the way to home. The placement of legs on the female tick is such that by this placement the male tick is able to fit in its own legs in-between the female tick’s legs. As the big tick grows, one can begin to notice a couple of holes in its exoskeleton. Later I noticed that the small tick is able to crawl beneath the big one in order to help the big one to turn onto its belly by using those holes. Once turned on to its belly, the big one was again able to move independently. However, the satiated female is also able to twist its legs around her exoskeleton and turn to its belly with no outside help.

The small male helping the big female to turn on its stomach.

Ticks are obviously able to actively communicate among themselves. I observed a tick lying on its back for a relatively long time. The male was helping the female to turn, but as the bottom of the jar is relatively slippery, it was difficult and it took them a long time. A couple of times the male tick gave up and went away and but soon thereafter came back. More in-depth studies would probably show some pheromone based communication system that ticks use for communication.

Ticks are robustly built and their shell is extremely hard. A female tick (if not enlarged as a result of feeding on the host’s blood) or a male tick is very difficult to destroy. Ticks bodies are able to withstand great pressure without any consequences and still be able to crawl away from you.

Beware of ticks (advice on how to protect yourselves against ticks)

Beware of ticks ( advice on how to protect your dog against ticks and flea:

Link 1, Link 2 ).

This article highlighted only the problems dogs may have with ticks – this is because I was able to easily find ticks in my dog’s hair. Ticks attack people, dogs, cats and other higher mammals, but the methods of how to remove them are the same for all the species.

When they attack people, ticks prefer areas where the skin is humid and soft, such as the stomach, bikini area, armpits, and the skin behind the ear. Beware of ticks. If bitten, you can get infected by a number of diseases. Although most of them are not dangerous, some might be. There are single-cell micro-organisms living inside ticks that can be transmitted to the host by saliva. The most dangerous diseases that can be transmitted to man are the Lyme disease and the tick-borne meningoencephalitis. If you happen to find a tick on your body, remove it as described, without any fear or panic. Do not let it realize your intentions. After you remove it, put it in a box, close the box safely and go to the doctor’s office and take the box with you.

The best cure against ticks is to simply be cautious. When you come back from the country, conduct a thorough examination of your body and/or your pet in case there is a parasite using your body as a host.

There are also a lot of repellents used to protect one against ticks and other parasites. Get some information about them at the closest pharmacy or vet ambulance.

Some external links which might be of some use:

I hope that this article will help you enjoy your trips into nature and to keep you safe. If you have any further comments or any remarks, feel free to contact me! Good luck.

Some of the material used in this article was taken from the feedback that I got on the following newsgroup – hr.rec.bicikli (in Croatian) by: Grga Frangeš (on the topic of spiderlike creatures), “Oldtimer” (topic: ticks in general) and “Wanguard” (information on means how to protect oneself from ticks).

In addition, I would like to thank Borna Kišpatić ( for his contribution on the topic of “ticks as parasites on human hosts”), Boris Gnjip (who sent me a copy of an article from “Glas Istre”) and Tibor Keser (for information on how much time is needed for a tick caused infection to develop fully).