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Deer Ticks Active Throughout Winter In Kentucky

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Adult deer ticks are a lot like people. As winter sets in, they’re just looking for a mate and warm meal... a warm, blood meal.

While ticks are most active during spring and summer, deer ticks continue looking for a bite to eat through winter, so long as the temperatures don’t dip below freezing for too long.

“Just because it’s turned colder, doesn’t mean you might not come in contact with a tick,” said Catherine Hill, a professor of entomology at Purdue University.

Across the country, the number of Americans contracting tick-borne diseases doubled from 2004 to 2016. During the same time, Hill said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported seven new tick-borne diseases.

Kentucky is home to at least five species of ticks, though deer ticks, also known as black-legged ticks, are the species that remains most active throughout winter.

As temperatures cool off, adult deer ticks continue hiding in leaf litter or on deer, Hill said.

“The adults, the males and the females, are active throughout he winter. From October through the spring of next year,” she said.

They’ll wait at the end of leaves and twigs, with their first set of legs held up in the air like a referee calling a touchdown.

At the ends of their feet, the ticks have smell receptors. So they wave their legs about trying to detect a host. If one moves past, the ticks use little claws at the end of their feet to attach to the unsuspecting passersby, Hill said.

It generally takes 24 to 48 hours for a feeding tick to transmit an infection, so people just need to take precautions after a holiday jaunt through the woods, Hill said.

Deer ticks can transmit Lyme and at least four other diseases, according to the Kentucky Fish and Wildlife.  The number of confirmed cases of Lyme disease generally increased in Kentucky between 2007 and 2016, but remains far below northeastern states where Lyme disease is much more common, according to the CDC.

Cases in Kentucky peaked in 2016 with 16 confirmed cases of the disease, while last year there were only six confirmed cases in the Commonwealth. Those numbers are minuscule compared to states like Pennsylvania, which reported 9,250 cases to the CDC last year.

Ryan Van Velzer is the Kentucky Public Radio Managing Editor. Email Ryan at rvanvelzer@lpm.org.