Ringworm in cats: Fungus among us

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A cat with pet insurance is looked at by a vet.

By: Dr. Jane Matheys
Associate Veterinarian
The Cat Doctor Veterinary Hospital
For Pets Best Insurance

Contrary to its name, the pet health condition known as ringworm is not actually caused by a worm at all, but by a fungus that can infect the hair, skin or nails. It is the most common contagious skin infection in cats. Also known as dermatophytosis, ringworm often spreads to other pets in the household, and can spread to humans too.

Cats may become infected with ringworm either by direct contact with fungal spores of an infected animal, or by exposure to a contaminated environment or contaminated objects such as grooming tools, clippers or bedding. Ringworm spores are notoriously hardy and can survive in the environment up to 2 years. Ringworm seems to be more common in young cats less than a year old, and in long-haired cats, particularly Persians.

Ringworm lesions are oftentimes very similar to other feline skin diseases like flea allergy dermatitis, inhalant allergies or even feline chin acne. Some loss of hair is usually involved, but the amount of inflammation, scaling and itchiness can be highly variable. It’s even possible for a cat to carry ringworm spores and not show any symptoms at all. Classic ringworm symptoms are discrete, roughly circular, scaly areas of hair loss, especially on the face, head, ears or paws.

Since some cats show few or no symptoms, a diagnosis of ringworm is rarely made just by looking at the skin. A veterinarian may use a specialized ultra violet light to help diagnose ringworm, or may examine a fungal culture taken from a cat’s hair or skin cells. Skin biopsy and microscopic exam are sometimes also performed. A fungal culture is the most reliable method.

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Treatment of ringworm depends upon the severity of the infection. Healthy, short-haired kittens and cats with small, isolated lesions are often treated with topical therapy only. Topical therapy plays a vey important role in reducing environmental contamination. The recommended topical treatment is lime sulfur dips. These dips have a bad odor and can temporarily turn the coat a yellowish color, but they are extremely effective and should be used as directed by your veterinarian.

In more severe cases, a combination of oral and topical treatments is generally used. Several oral antifungal agents are available. Itraconazole had been the antifungal of choice, but recently more veterinary dermatologists are using fluconazole instead. It is available as a generic and is, therefore, considerably less expensive. It is also excreted from the body via the kidneys so it has far less side effects on the liver.

Treatment should be continued until all of the affected animals have recovered and are negative on fungal cultures. In most cases cats will need treatment for a minimum of 6 weeks and in some cases much longer. Minimizing exposure to other cats or dogs and to your family members during this period is recommended.

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Decontamination of the environment is essential to help eliminate and control fungal spores. Confine animals with this pet health condition to one room of the house if possible to avoid spreading spores. Use bleach mixed at 1:10 dilution on any surface you can. Vacuum the entire house thoroughly and dispose of vacuum bags which will contain spores. Wash all bedding, brushes and collars. Change the furnace filters as spores can become airborne. Repeat this cleaning process weekly.

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Always be aware that ringworm can be spread between cats and people. Direct contact with affected cats should be minimized. Persons should wear gloves when handling affected animals and wash hands well afterwards. Ringworm lesions on human skin often have the characteristic red “ring”. If any skin lesions develop the family doctor should be consulted. Fortunately, ringworm in humans usually responds well to topical treatment.

For more information about pet health or to learn more about pet health insurance, visit Pets Best Insurance.

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