Lyme disease is carried by a tick commonly known as the deer tick (or black-legged tick). Deer ticks pass the bacteria to a human or animal as it feeds upon their blood.
Other types of ticks exist in Massachusetts and can pass other diseases, but it’s the deer tick and Lyme disease that you need to worry most about – especially if you have children or pets.
Deer tick season on Cape Cod
Deer ticks are active on Cape Cod year round — especially during years with mild winters.
How bad are ticks on cape cod? Take your dog on a walk in the woods and you’ll find out pretty quickly that many areas are completely covered with them. It’s not uncommon to pull a dozen or more ticks off of your dog after a walk, and many people will avoid narrow trails altogether.
Understanding how ticks feed and spread disease can help you protect your family and pets.
Three-stage life cycle of deer ticks
Deer ticks have a three-stage life cycle. The adult tick is active in the late fall and early spring while the larvae and nymphs are active during the late spring, early summer, and fall.
Deer tick larvae: extremely small, similar in size to a period.
Deer tick nymphs: the size of a poppy seed and are difficult to see.
Adult deer tick: the size of a sesame seed and appears dark reddish brown.
How do deer ticks spread Lyme disease?
All stages of deer ticks can be carried by dogs and cats. But the usual hosts are woodland mammals such as the while-tailed deer and white-footed mouse.
Adult ticks feed and mate on large mammals in the fall and early spring. Female ticks drop off and lay eggs on the ground in the spring.
Small larvae hatch and feed upon white-footed mice, other small mammals, and birds. If the host mammal is infected with Lyme disease bacteria, then deer tick larvae will become infected. After they feed the larvae are inactive until early spring, when they molt into the nymph stage.
Nymphs that have picked up the bacteria in the larval stage are capable of transmitting the bacteria to humans or other hosts, including pets. This stage is most active in June, and causes more cases of Lyme disease than the adult tick.
In the late spring and summer nymphs seek a host for a blood meal. The host may be a small mammal or bird, but if you’re unlucky it may also be a dog, cat, or a human.
After feeding, nymphs molt into the adult stage. Adult ticks start the cycle again by feeding on a large mammal such as a deer, pet, or human.
Note that both infected nymph and adult ticks can transmit the Lyme disease bacteria. These ticks may also transmit Babesiosis and Ehrlichiosis.
Types of ticks on Cape Cod
Wondering what kinds of ticks are found on Cape Cod? There are three ticks found most commonly on Cape Cod and the Islands: the deer tick, the American dog tick, and the Lone Star tick. American dog ticks and Lone Star ticks are larger than deer ticks — so they’re easier to see and remove.
Deer tick (Ixodes scapularis)
Note the relatively smaller size and teardrop shape. The dorsal shield is blackish; the abdomen is reddish-brown. The male tick is uniformly dark brown.
Here’s how deer ticks look when they’re engorged after feeding:
American dog tick (Dermacentor variabilis)
The dorsal shield of the commons dog tick is whitish; the abdomen is chestnut brown.
Female dog ticks become engorged or greatly swollen during a blood meal. The color of the abdomen changes to a uniform gray.
The male tick is mottled gray.
Lone Star Tick (Amblyomma americanum)
The Lone Start tick is a relatively recent arrival on Cape Cod. The female Lone Star tick is easily identified by her pronounced white dot or star in the center of her back.
This tick is not a passive opportunist like the more common dog and deer ticks. While those tick species wait until a host makes contact with them, the Lone Star tick will actively pursue a host.
How to identify a tick
Using the image below you should be able to identify deer ticks (aka black-footed ticks), dog ticks, or lone star ticks.
If you’re going to be walking in these types of areas, take the following precautions.
Wear light-colored clothing so it’s easier to see them on you
Wear long pants and tuck the pant legs into your socks – not just a good tick safety tip, but a pretty killer fashion tip as well
Stay in the middle of trails and avoid brushing against vegetation. This includes wooded trails, but also beach grass.
Check for ticks frequently on yourself, children, and dogs
Apply insect repellent containing DEET (N-N-diethyl-metatoluamide) on adults, including exposed skin and clothing. Use with caution on children.
If you use a contact insecticide such as permethrin, apply it only to outer clothing. Read and follow label directions carefully. It can also be applied to the outside of your tent if you’re camping on cape cod
Ask your veterinarian about Lyme vaccines. Use veterinarian-approved tick control products on pets that go outdoors
Keep brush and tall vegetation away from the house and try to eliminate tick-friendly environments in your yard
Where to check yourself and children for ticks
A careful tick check is the most effective way to protect yourself, your family, and your pets from Lyme disease.
After outdoor activities, brush off clothing thoroughly. Do a visual inspection. Pay attention to folded areas such as cuffs, belts and shirt collars. Ticks love to burrow in.
Do a complete body check on a daily basis. Check children and pets more frequently, and especially each time they’re done playing outside.
Inspect the hairline and scalp as well as difficult-to-see areas such as the back. Checking yourself and kids when you shower each day is a great idea, it’s much easier to spot them when clothes are removed. Don’t forget to check the clothes too, sometimes ticks are still crawling around there before they get to attach to your tasty flesh.
Where to check dogs for ticks
Ticks may hitchhike indoors on pets or clothing and then fall off. Dogs should be checked for ticks on a regular basis, particularly around the eyes, ears and underbelly.
Tick removal for pets follows the same technique that is used on humans. Ask your vet to recommend a tick preventative product to kill any ticks who do bit your pet.
Tick Spraying on Cape Cod
One of the best ways to protect your family and pets against ticks on Cape Cod is to spray your yard with pesticides.
But tick spraying alone won’t solve the problem. It’s best to try and eliminate areas where ticks may live prior to applying pesticide. This includes:
Remove leaf litter
Clear tall grasses and brush around homes and at the edge of lawns
Place a three foot-wide barrier of wood chips or gravel between lawns and wooded areas to restrict tick migration into recreational areas
Mow your lawn frequently
Stack wood neatly and in a dry area (to discourage rodents).
Keep playground equipment, decks, and patios away from yard edges and trees
Build fences to discourage unwelcome animals from entering your yard, and to keep your pets from entering tick habitats
What to do if a tick bites you
How to remove ticks the right way
A tick’s mouthparts are barbed like a fish hook. Once inserted, a cement-like substance is released, making tick removal difficult. Proper and prompt removal of ticks includes the following steps:
Grasp the tick at the point of attachment using fine tipped tweezers. Do not squeeze the body.
Pull straight out with slow and steady pressure. Avoid twisting the tick.
Apply an antiseptic to the bite area.
When removing ticks from pets try to avoid pulling out too much fur.
Do not apply petroleum jelly, nail polish remover, or a hot match to the tick. This will not make the tick back out.
Most people who get Lyme disease don’t even know they’ve been bitten by a tick. Deer ticks are tiny and they’re easy to overlook.
The symptoms of lime disease at the early stage include:
Chills and/or fever
Pain in muscles and joints
Skin rash (circular) that increases in size
Getting a round or circular rash is a tell-tale sign. But many people who have Lyme disease don’t develop a rash. If you think you may be infected don’t wait. See a doctor right away. Antibiotics can be prescribed to help treat it.
Delaying treatment for Lyme disease will intensify symptoms. Major medical problems such as potentially serious heart, nervous system, and arthritic conditions can develop.
If you live or vacation on Cape Cod then you are at risk for Lyme disease. See a medical professional right away if you suspect you have it.
If you suspect that you have Lyme disease or were recently bitten by a deer tick then consult your physician. If your dog was bitten then consult your vet.
The symptoms of Lyme disease are easy to confuse with other illnesses so they’re often overlooked. Antibiotics are generally prescribed for treatment.
The bacteria can move very quickly from beneath the skin to deeper tissues in the body quickly (before the blood tests can detect evidence of illness). Because of this some doctors choose to treat preventatively before symptoms arise.
Additional Resources on Ticks on Cape Cod
Our page contains tick safety information about ticks on Cape Cod that was compiled from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, and the Town of Brewster.
Here are some links to their sites if you want to learn more about ticks: