• Miranda Reiman, senior associate editor

Critters and Culprits

Delving deeper into the implications of tick-related illness, animal behavior and tick type.

June 2022 issue


Click here to read more on the CDC: How Ticks Spread Disease


It’s not uncommon to cuss the pests that afflict your cattle in the warm months of the year. In many regions the summer months bring flies in more excessive waves, and the ticks are both more persistent and more prevalent altogether.

Breeders are well aware of the negative effects of pests such as ticks. They are culprits of disease transmission among a variety of hosts, humans included. This makes them the “bad guys” not only in our cattle herds, but within our families, too.

“We think about ticks mostly from disease transmission,” says Cassan Pulaski, Merck Animal health veterinary parasitology resident. “The whole feeding behavior of ticks makes them the perfect vector for parasites and diseases, viral or bacterial, from one host to another, because of their feeding mechanism.”

When a tick bites its host, it releases substances into the bloodstream that essentially numb the host and anchor the tick to the epidermis. Hosts can sometimes react to those released substances. When a lone star tick bites a human, for example, sometimes the immune system responds to the substance and results in a red meat allergy.

“A person who has loved red meat their entire life can get one tick bite, and all of a sudden they can never eat that product again,” Pulaski says.

When ticks feed on cattle in groups, they can cause cattle to go off feed. Ticks habitually attach in the ears, which can be painful enough to limit ear movement, Pulaski says. This sets the herd up for sickness with other fly-related issues, as they are not warding off other external pests.

“Ticks can cause major issues in terms of feed conversion in cattle, because they are so irritated and uncomfortable,” she says.

Producers should monitor for infestations in their cattle, Pulaski says.

Ticks can be found along the brisket; in between legs; along the flank, side, udder or cod; under the tail and around the perianal region, says Justin Talley, livestock entomology professor at Oklahoma State University. In the Extension video, “Checking Cattle for Ticks,” he notes, “When you have 10 or more lone star ticks, it can reduce weight gains and impact weaning weights.”

Excessive encroachment can lead to anemia in rare cases, but frequently producers are concerned about pay weight and sickness in their herds from tick-related illnesses such as anaplasmosis or tick paralysis.

There are two types of ticks: hard ticks and soft ticks.

The “normal” ticks, or the kinds we frequently see throughout the United States, are hard ticks. Lone star, Asian longhorned and American dog ticks are all examples of hard ticks. They attach to their host and feed for two to three days. Given that they can attach to a variety of different species of hosts, they are correlated to major vectors of disease transmission.

Soft ticks, on the other hand, are less prevalent throughout North America. They do not have a hard outer shell, but rather a spiny body. Some species of soft ticks can live upwards of 14 years.

An example of a soft tick is the spinose ear tick. Residing in more arid locations of the United States such as Texas, southern Oklahoma and New Mexico, the spinose ear tick lives in burrows and jumps onto their host to feed for only 20 to 30 minutes at a time.

“One of the easiest ways to tell a soft tick from a hard tick is by studying them by looking directly down over the top of their body. If you can see the mouth, what we call the capitulum, then it’s a hard tick. If you can’t see part of the tick’s feeding apparatus, it’s a soft tick,” Pulaski says.

What’s grotesque to some is interesting to others, Pulaski says.

Ticks can:

  • Go a year or two without a feeding.

  • Lay in wait for their next meal along livestock or wildlife trails, but some are more aggressive and will hunt for a host.

  • Target based on body odor, breathing, moisture, vibrations, body heat, and sometimes even by sensing shadows, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Ticks proliferate in warm environments and shortened winters have allowed them to thrive for longer periods of time, Pulaski says.

The higher frequency of warm months has increased cases of infestations and disease.

Tick-related illnesses are on the rise in the United States, both for animals and humans. Pulaski urges breeders to keep foliage low, clear out brush sources and use tick prevention medication; and send in any suspicious ticks for inspection.

“Ticks bring about an ‘ick’ factor that’s an issue for everyone,” Pulaski says. “It’s crazy to think about how much feeding these guys can do in numbers.”

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