If you're spending time outside—whether it's gardening, camping or clearing brush around your home—make sure you check yourself, your loved ones and your pets for ticks. These pests are small and can easily attach to your body. Ticks can also cause serious health problems, so knowing more about the different types is vital.

There are many varieties of ticks, but let's focus on wood ticks vs. deer ticks. It's important to know the characteristics of each for proper identification and avoidance, as each are primary carriers of Lyme disease, Rocky Mountain spotted fever and other serious diseases. Here's a guide for identifying the differences and similarities of these two tick species so you know what to do if either one ends up on you or someone you love.

How can you tell a deer tick from a wood tick?

The Basics

In the deer tick vs. wood tick comparison, they both want blood. A deer tick, known scientifically as ixodes scapularis, is a black-legged creature. Its bite can affect your skin and nervous system, as well as your joints and heart. A wood tick, known as dermacentor variabilis, is also called an American dog tick.

Start in the Back

Ticks are known for being small, and it can be hard to tell the difference between deer ticks and wood ticks using the naked eye. Both deer and wood ticks have U-shaped backs, but the big difference can be seen in the coloring of their lower back region. A deer tick’s lower back is red while a wood tick has a black lower back.

Size Differences

With ticks, size depends on whether or not they’ve eaten. Male or female, wood ticks are usually three-sixteenth inches long on an empty stomach. After feeding, a female wood tick's silver-colored spot behind its head grows to one-half-inch long; the male's spot usually doesn't change. A deer tick is close to one-eighth inches long.

Seasonal Behavior

A deer tick in its larvae or nymph stage is usually active in the spring and summer. Adult deer ticks are more active in the spring and fall. An adult wood tick is more active during the months from spring to early summer.


Small mammals and mice are the primary target for deer ticks that are in the larvae stage in the spring. When they grow into adulthood, they focus on larger animals and humans. With wood ticks, the meal of choice includes mice and birds when they're young, and humans and pets when they're adults.


Deer ticks are the primary vectors of Lyme disease, a nasty disease that can cause severe health issues. Primary symptoms are a bull's-eye rash on the skin, along with flu-like symptoms, including fever and aches. Wood ticks are the primary vector of Rocky Mountain spotted fever, which can bring symptoms such as fever, spotty rash (two to five days after fever), nausea and body aches. Both ticks can also transmit other serious diseases. It’s important to seek prompt medical attention if you exhibit these symptoms, especially if you suspect they’re in conjunction with a bite of any kind.

Regardless of the type of tick, the same strategies can be used for protection. Long-sleeve shirts with pants or long socks are encouraged any time of the year. If a tick lands on you, it's likely you won't feel it. They're not like spiders, flies or mosquitoes, which usually cause a tingling sensation on your skin letting you know something's not right. Long clothing and insect repellent can prevent ticks from taking up residence on your body, but these pests can easily attach to your clothing, too. Make sure to check for ticks at the end of the day or whenever you come inside after a few hours. Inspect outdoor pets, too. Consult your vet for medication to ward off ticks or if you have concerns about possible bites.

Remember, if you find a tick on a loved one, your pet or yourself consult a medical professional immediately.