It's roughly the size of the nail on your pinky finger, but it can pose a huge threat to you and your pets.
Ladies and gentlemen, meet ixodes scapularis, better known in Manitoba as the blacklegged tick, a creepy little bloodsucker with the potential to spread Lyme disease, a bacterial infection that typically resides in deer, mice, squirrels and other small animals.
"It's a small bug but a potentially big threat," celebrity pet expert Jarod Miller warned during a visit earlier this month to the Free Press News Caf©. "We're encouraging people to protect their pets by being aware that ticks carry Lyme disease. Only about 25 per cent of Canadians are even aware of what Lyme disease is."
Best known for dozens of appearances on The Today Show, The Tonight Show, Good Morning America and Conan O'Brien's shows, the media-savvy American zoologist has become sort of the Sidney Crosby of the animal world.
A former executive director of the Binghamton Zoo in Binghamton, N.Y., Miller became the youngest accredited zoo director in the U.S. at the age of 25. Now 34, he is the host of the popular syndicated series Animal Exploration with Jarod Miller.
The outgoing animal expert was in Winnipeg as part of a tour to promote awareness of Lyme disease and the use of K9 Advantix, a topical solution designed specifically for dogs that kills ticks before they can bite and transmit the bacteria.
Miller said this is the time of year when Winnipeggers need to be on guard for blacklegged ticks. With an abundance of wooded areas, our city is a perfect breeding ground for the pests, he noted.
"Right when the good weather starts, that's when the ticks begin their life cycle and the new population of ticks comes out," he said in an interview. Dogs are especially at risk, because they are more likely than cats to spend times rooting around in forested areas.
"Ticks are everywhere. They can be in grass and in trees. They can crawl and jump. They're attracted to warm-blooded animals. What a tick does is leap on the animal and bore its head into their skin, which makes them difficult to remove. They're little bloodsuckers."
Once it lands on a dog or a human, the tick will usually wander around for several hours looking for the perfect spot to dig in and feed. They must remain attached to the skin for several hours to transmit the infection.
"What makes a tick bite different is when they bite, they bore their entire head into the skin, while a mosquito will bite you and take off. During the feeding process, the bacteria can enter into the bloodstream. Once a tick bites, that's when the problems start."
Labelled the Great Imitator, Lyme disease can be extremely hard to diagnose because it has a multitude of symptoms and can mimic many different diseases. That makes it hard to know the extent of the problem.
The first sign is usually a rash that erupts within a month of the initial bite from an infected tick. The rash may be painless, or itchy and hot. It often brings flu-like symptoms, fatigue and joint pain.
The best treatment, Miller told me, is to avoid getting infected in the first place.
He said he'd hate to discourage dog owners from taking their pets outside or on wilderness vacations, but it is essential for them to get in the habit of checking their animals for the tiny ticks as frequently as possible.
"They're small enough to go undetected, but if you're vigilant and go through your dog with a flea comb, you can see them with the naked eye," the zoologist said. "You don't want your dog getting Lyme disease, but also your dog can be the vehicle for your family and your children to be exposed to it, too. It can be very serious."
Miller also strongly advocated treating dogs once a month with K9 Advantix, which must be prescribed by a veterinarian.
"To prevent it, you use a product like K9 Advantix to kill the tick before it bites, because once the tick bites, that's when it can transmit Lyme disease."
He knows only too well the pain caused by this disease. When he was just 10, Miller's aunt fell victim to the bite of an infected tick, but it took doctors years to figure out the source of the problem.
"My aunt suffered from it for 10 years," he recalled. "She got it in the early '80s in Colorado. She was in her 30s at the time and started having problems with her joints and fatigue. She was tired all the time.
"She's made a good recovery but there's still some side-effects, nerve damage, from it."
When removing a tick, Miller noted, dog owners need to be wary of leaving the pest's head behind, because it can become infected.
Tweezers and tick-removal devices sold at pet stores are an option, but owners should never be reluctant to have the removal done by a vet. But he stressed no one should try to remove a tick with a lit match. "You'll end up with a dog on fire," he joked.
Along with ticks, heat is a major threat dogs face in the summer months, the pet expert said.
"Make sure your pets are hydrated and you have water when you go for walks because your dog can get overheated," he warned. "They have a higher natural body temperature than we do. Never leave your dog in a car."
A quick solution for an overheated dog: Put a cold compress on their feet or dip their paws in cold water. "Shave your dogs down for the summer," he advised. "It keeps them cool and makes it easier to find ticks."