A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

What's up with these pairs of ticks I keep finding? And how do I get rid of them?

September 21, 2010

Oh, great purveyor of facts both weird and wonderful:

It is tick season here in the Rio Grande Valley, and sometimes I pull 30 ticks off of my dogs in a day. Frequently I notice two ticks that can only be described as locked in a lovers' embrace. If I find them early enough, it'll be two small ticks with their heads buried in my dog, belly to belly, with their legs locked around each other; sometimes, though, one will be a big ol' fat one with a small one underneath. I don't recall seeing two fat ones next to each other like this, but frequently I find the large/small pair.

My questions are: Are these a mated pair? Why is one distended and one not? Are they a male and a female? What is the best way to remove them? Wise one, please elucidate on the life cycle of the lowly tick.

SDSTAFF Doug replies:

By itself, an odd question about pairs of embracing ticks might not have been of sufficiently general interest to make it out of the Straight Dope in-box. But throwing in a supplementary question about tick removal gives your e-mail enough across-the-board appeal to get it answered here. Nicely done.

First off, there isn't just one lowly tick, as you put it—there are hundreds of different kinds of tick, most of them specialized for feeding on only a very limited range of hosts. It's likely that what your dog has are mainly dog ticks, so my comments will be based on that assumption. The fat ones you're finding are females, engorged with blood and full of eggs. When you come across fat ones paired with small ones, you are indeed seeing mating pairs in the act—the Latin term is in copulo. Until and unless a female has fed, she's bigger than a male but not that much bigger. Once she's fed, though, a female can attain grotesquely huge dimensions relative to her prefeeding size. Males, however, don't feed as adults—they live only to mate, and then die. You'll never see a fat male. Of course, before they're sexually mature, both sexes feed and grow; these immature ticks are called "seed ticks." The species of ticks that feed on humans don't have the same biology as dog ticks; female human ticks require only very small amounts of blood before they can reproduce, so they never get to be the size of raisins.

Now to your more practical question. The best way to remove human ticks is to get them to voluntarily withdraw their mouthparts. The specifics of how to do this have been the subject of much debate, scholarly and otherwise, dating back to when people lived in caves. No single definitive answer has emerged, if only because circumstances vary—what kind of tick it is, where it is attached, how dexterous the would-be extractor is, and what tools he or she might have available. Generally speaking, the preferred method involves the use of forceps to grip the tick's head right at the point of insertion (without crushing it) and very slowly and gently pull it straight back. The reason the motion should be slow and gentle is that the mouthparts are barbed, and the tick can't retract the barbs, so all yanking will do is leave the head embedded in your flesh, and pulling too hard will just cause the tick to become trapped. But slow, persistent backward force will entice the tick to gradually withdraw the mouthparts to relieve the tension. It does work—I've done it myself—but it requires patience.

Other methods are out there, of course. Many people swear by coating a tick with nail polish, theoretically causing it to suffocate, or touching it with a hot match head. The former is unpredictable and unreliable; the latter is potentially viable—burning a tick is indeed likely to entice it to release its hold—but risky.  The problem with such techniques is that they often make the tick salivate or regurgitate into the wound. So you may well remove the tick, and feel quite relieved and proud of your accomplishment, but in the process you'll have greatly increased your odds of getting infected with any disease organism the tick might be carrying, thus defeating the purpose of removing the tick in the first place. This also is why you should never use your fingers to try to pull out a tick—squeezing its body virtually guarantees that whatever's in the tick's gut will be injected into your bloodstream. In fact, pretty much all the standard home-grown tick-removal schemes are bad ideas. One exception, I guess: I've yet to hear of a doctor condemning the application of ice to a tick. The only problem here is that ice won't necessarily make the tick let go. After all, your body is pretty warm; unless you're prepared to freeze your own skin, you may not be able to make things cold enough to persuade the tick to give up. And freezing your own skin is generally not recommended, either.

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