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Tick Life Cycle | PetMD

by Bella Woof

Ticks transmit many serious diseases with long-term and debilitating effects. The best way to fight back is to prevent ticks all year round, keeping you and your pets safe.

It is important to understand how ticks reproduce and when they are most active. Ticks can kill both dogs and cats, so it is necessary to stop the tick life cycle, ideally before they can transmit a life-threatening disease.

Flea and tick prevention products aim to repel ticks or kill them before they transmit disease, which is why they are so important.

The life cycle of a tick

The tick life cycle consists of four stages:

  1. Egg

  2. Larva

  3. Nymph

  4. Adult

Larvae and nymphs have six legs and adult ticks have eight legs. Ticks are bloodsuckers and need a host (and their blood) to survive, molt, and reproduce. Most tick species require multiple hosts to complete their life cycle; For others, like the brown dog tick, they may spend their entire life cycle on one host (your dog).

The female tick lays thousands of eggs, usually under leaves or other types of debris. The larva hatches and attaches to a host, usually a small bird or rodent such as a mouse, where it can then contract deadly diseases and become a carrier.

Shortly after feeding, the larva leaves the host, remains inactive for up to a year, molts and becomes a nymph. It then feeds on another host, where it can transmit its disease or diseases, drops down and remains dormant again for a few months before molting and becoming an adult.

The adult tick then finds its host (usually a larger animal or human), mates, feeds, and transmits the disease. The male tick remains on its host until it finishes feeding, when it falls off and dies. The female tick usually falls off shortly after mating to lay her eggs. On average, this term takes about 2 years to complete.

When feeding, the tick regurgitates digestive enzymes to prevent its host’s blood from clotting so it can continue feeding. During the regurgitation process, fleas transmit diseases to the host. This process usually takes more than 48 hours for some ticks, but the time varies and for some tick species it only takes a few hours.

If the tick is found and removed in time, the chances of disease transmission are rare. This is why tick prevention is critical to keeping pets safe year-round, as medications are designed to kill the tick or cause it to abandon its host before the disease is transmitted.

The 6 Most Common Ticks in the United States

American dog tick


Photo credit: iStock/dbstudio

Dermacentor variabilis It is known to transmit tularemia and Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), and is also one of the main ticks that cause paralysis. This tick can be found throughout the United States, but no longer in the Rocky Mountains, where it was first identified, nor in the southwestern states.

lone star tick

lone star tick

Photo credit: iStock/Joesboy

American amblyomma It is known to transmit ehrlichiosis, tularemia, cytauxzoonosis, Heartland virus disease, rickettsiosis, and STARI (southern tick-associated eruptive disease). This tick is commonly seen in southern states, but can be found in some northern states. This tick is most active from early spring to late fall.

Black-legged (deer) tick

black legged tick

Photo credit: iStock/Jason Ondreicka

Scapular Ixodes It is known to transmit Lyme disease, babesiosis, anaplasmosis, ehrlichiosis, and Powassan virus disease. This tick is most commonly seen in the eastern United States, but has reached as far south and west as Texas and South Dakota.

brown dog tick


Photo credit: iStock/RobertAx

Rhipicephalus sanguineus It is known to transmit babesiosis, Rocky Mountain spotted fever (RMSF), ehrlichiosis, canine hepatozoonosis, and anaplasmosis. This tick is typically seen in the southern states, but there is no limit to its geographic spread. A unique feature of this tick is that it can also be found in homes and kennels.

winter tick

winter tick

Photo credit: University of Nebraska.

Dermacentor albipictus It is more commonly seen in elk, deer, and elk than in our companion animals. It is not known to carry diseases that can be transmitted to people or pets. As its name implies, it is most active in the fall and winter and has been seen from coast to coast throughout the United States.

Gulf Coast tick

gulf coast tick

Photo credit: National Environmental Health Association.

Amblyomma maculatum It is known to transmit canine rickettsiosis and hepatozoonosis. As its name implies, this tick is most commonly seen along the Gulf Coast, but has been seen as far north as Ohio. It is most active from late summer to early fall.

How to keep ticks away from pets

Ticks pose a significant threat to you and your pets. It is vital that they are protected as best as possible, and the best way to protect them is through prevention. Partnering with your veterinarian to find the right flea and tick medication is important for your pet’s health.

Most tick prevention products that come in chewable tablets like Bravecto and Nexgard, a wearable collar like Seresto, or even a topical like Frontline Plus take several hours to begin repelling and killing ticks. Therefore, when planning outdoor activities with your pet, make sure they are protected well in advance.

And because ticks have been found from coast to coast, veterinarians recommend providing year-round flea and tick protection for both dogs and cats, and performing frequent, thorough checks on all pets.

Featured Image:


Michael Kearley, D.V.M.


Dr. Michael Kearley graduated from the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in 2013. He graduated with a certificate in…

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