A Look Into Ringworm: The Leading Cause of Cat Skin Disease


A highly contagious and persistent skin disease, ringworm can be difficult to diagnose. Cats can act as carriers without ever showing signs of the disease, which can also be transmitted to humans. The disease is a particular problem in shelters and catteries.

“It’s a frustrating, challenging disease,” notes Dr. Duffy Jones, who recently diagnosed a cat in his Atlanta practice. “Not every cat shows clinical signs. Sometimes we’ll see it on the person and find it on the cat later.”

What Is Ringworm?
Often mistaken for a worm or parasite, ringworm is actually a hardy fungal infection, says Dr. Amber Andersen, a veterinarian pursuing a masters degree in public health. Ringworm can be spread through direct contact or through contact with things an infected cat touches, such as bedding.

Kittens, elderly cats, cats with compromised immune systems and long-haired felines are more vulnerable to ringworm, according to Andersen. Likewise, children, the elderly and people with compromised immune systems are also more susceptible. If left untreated, ringworm can lead to secondary bacterial infections.

How to Prevent Ringworm in Cats
Experts recommend following this checklist:

  • Monitor your cat. Brush your cat at least once a week, examining its skin and coat, says Andersen. Look for hair loss or lesions around your cat’s nose, ears and face, advises Jones. A circular, red hairless area is a symptom of ringworm. Don’t forget to examine hard-to-reach places, such as your cat’s stomach. Monitor vulnerable cats, such as kittens or senior cats, more frequently.
  • Clean up your cat’s area. Remove dust and debris each week from your cat’s sleeping area and from your entire home. Wash bedding regularly, says Andersen.
  • Keep your cat indoors. Outdoor cats can be exposed to ringworm in the environment.
  • Carefully introduce new cats. Take special precautions if you bring home a kitten. Make sure a veterinarian first examines the kitten. In general, don’t allow new cats to sleep around your face, and wash your hands carefully after handling, advises Jones.

If Your Cat Gets Ringworm …
It can take up to four weeks to develop the culture that veterinarians use to diagnose ringworm. If your veterinarian suspects ringworm, he or she will likely recommend immediate treatment. Jones dips cats in a lime sulfur shampoo. “The cats hate it and it smells terrible, but it’s very, very safe. Eighty to 90 percent of cases will clear with the dip,” says Jones. Oral drugs can cause stomach upset, so the dip is better. Your cat may also be treated with a topical ointment, says Andersen.

You should also do the following:

  • Have your other cats checked. Since ringworm spreads so easily, have all your cats examined if you live in a multi-cat household.
  • Vacuum rugs and floors daily. Discard vacuum bags or clean your vacuum frequently. Instead of dust mopping, use a wet mop with disposable pads. “The wet mops tend to pick up spores better,” says Jones.
  • Bleach or steam-clean surfaces. Andersen recommends a solution of 1 1/2 cups bleach to 1 gallon of water. Jones recommends steam-cleaning carpets and fabric-covered furniture.
  • Wash cat bedding and clothing. Hot water, bleach and detergent will help remove spores. Consider discarding fabric items and purchasing new bedding.
  • Confine your cat. Keep your cat in a small, easily cleaned space, such as a bathroom, for two weeks after treatment begins.
  • Throw away toys. Toss toys, scratching posts and brushes. Spores can live for up to a year in the environment, so you want to rid your home of anything that might harbor the fungus.
  • Don’t sleep with your kitty for a while. Avoid allowing your cat to share your bed until the ringworm issue is resolved.

“Ringworm is much more common than you would think,” says Andersen. And while it’s relatively benign compared to many other things, it can pose problems for some vulnerable people and animals.”

Kim Boatman is a journalist and frequent contributor to The Daily Catbased in Northern California whose work has appeared in The Miami Herald, the Detroit Free Press and the San Jose Mercury News. She is a lifelong lover of animals and shares her home with three cats.

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