Small Red Ticks: What are they?

While ticks have several characteristics in common with fleas and mites, these tiny blood-sucking parasites exhibit a number of unique behaviors that can help you distinguish them from other pests.

One of the most common sources of confusion between ticks and mites is color. No known species of naturally occurring red tick exists. But ticks can sometimes appear to be red if they’re in the act of feeding. However, the spider mite, red velvet mite, clover mite and the larvae of the harvest mite—known colloquially as chiggers—all take various shades of red. Mites, like ticks, are arachnids equipped with eight legs. Further, mites and ticks have only two segments: a small head with prominent mouthparts and a large body from which stems the legs.

Look for these indicators to determine if a small red tick is actually a mite:

  • Many mites are nearly invisible to the naked eye. (The red velvet mite is something of an exception, measuring a whopping fifth of an inch once it reaches adulthood.) The more visible the red speck, the more likely it is to be a tick.

  • The type of mites responsible for irritating their host, such as chiggers and itch mites (which cause scabies), actually feed on skin rather than blood. An immediate itch associated with a small red insect is probably a sign of a mite rather than a tick.

  • All ticks are hematophagous: Their diet consists exclusively of blood. Mites are more omnivorous, and many mite species are vegetarian-only. If you notice small red insects attached to your feet or legs after spending time outdoors, especially in tall grass or weeds, you have most likely picked up mites.

If your red tick is actually a tick, then it is likely a soft tick (the family Argasidae). This family of ticks includes the bat tick, the common fowl tick and several rodent-associated ticks (Ornithodoros) known to transmit relapsing fever as well as Lyme disease. As the names of these species suggest, these ticks are all associated with animals already considered nuisances and are more likely encountered if you have an existing mouse, rat or even squirrel infestation. Hard ticks, on the other hand, favor wooded and grassy environments, and therefore pose a concern to campers, hikers and those who work outdoors.

Soft ticks feature a more flattened, oval body type than their hard-bodied cousins, and they’re typically lighter in color: gray or gray-brown as opposed to black. Hard-bodied ticks are so-called because they have a hard plate, or scutum, positioned directly above their heads. Each species of hard tick sports a uniquely patterned scutum, so, unlike soft ticks, they can be more easily differentiated from one another upon close inspection.

Soft ticks are more like fleas in their feeding habits. Hard ticks can latch on and become anchored to their host for as long as a week. Soft ticks are more likely to feed more frequently, and thus take on a red appearance for hours—even minutes—rather than days. Soft ticks become engorged (or enlarged), but their stomachs cannot expand to the extent of their hard cousins, which can almost double their actual size. When not feeding, soft ticks often return to a central nest. Not unlike bedbugs, soft ticks are foragers who are attracted by the “scent” of carbon dioxide. This fact helps explain why humans are more at risk of being attacked by soft ticks while sleeping.

The best defense against soft ticks is to eliminate their habitat. You should have any bats and wildlife cleared from your attic. Carefully monitor any birds’ nests under your eaves or around your roof, and take precautions to make sure they don’t extend their nests inside your home. If you keep poultry, keep the area around their coop clean and free of brush, debris or any substance that may provide an opportunity for ticks to build a nest. (Most chicken owners also provide a sandy wallow, also known as a dust-bath, to help their birds with grooming.) Repair any loose or missing siding around the base of your home, seal any cracks or potential points of entry (e.g., broken foundation vent screens), and take precautions to keep rodents out. If you do notice signs of a rodent infestation, remember that a Terminix® pest control specialist is always ready to work with you.