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What is ringworm?

Despite the name, ringworm is not a worm at all, but is a highly contagious fungal infection caused by a number of different species. It can be extremely difficult to eradicate. While it need not be feared, if you don't have a very healthy respect for ringworm, then you don't understand! In addition to infecting cats, it will readily pass to dogs and humans, especially children, where it can cause scaly patches on the skin. It normally affects forearms, although it may also show in the hair, face and other parts of the body. The treatment, especially for infections of the scalp, is unpleasant but routine, although re-infection can be a problem. The spores can remain in carpets and furnishings for up to two years. Some cats may carry the disease but not show signs of infection.

What are the signs of ringworm?

Ringworm in cats first shows itself as small bald patches or scaly lesions, usually around the feet, ears, face or neck. On close inspection, the hairs of the coat may be seen to be broken off, although as the infection develops they may eventually fall out completely. Vets (and we) commonly use a powerful ultraviolet lamp, called a Wood's lamp, since some forms of ringworm fluoresce green under UV light. The small UV lamps sold for examining security markings are not really powerful enough to show ringworm, especially if complete darkness cannot be achieved. However, not all forms of ringworm fluoresce, so absence of response to UV is not evidence that the animal is clear of infection. In some cases it may be necessary to take a culture to give a definite diagnosis.

How is it treated?

Treatment must be carried out on several fronts - the cat itself and the environment must both be treated together. The cat may be prescribed a number of treatments, including oral systemic treatments such as Itrafungol, which makes the entire cat hostile to the fungus. They may also be given anti-fungal shampoo treatment and topically (locally) applied creams to the lesions. However, on no account buy these on the Internet and treat this condition yourself - you must get veterinary advice to find the best treatment for the specific infection. Severe infections, especially in long-haired cats, will often require the cat to be shaved. The infection can take several weeks to clear, even if reinfection does not occur.

As well as the animal, it is extremely important to deal with the environment at the same time. Ringworm can be very difficult to eradicate, as already stated, and the main reason for this is failing to remove spores. They can contaminate clothing, carpets and furniture, and also be transported on hands and shoes. (Remember they can stay viable for up to two years!) The best treatment known to us for everything except the cat is Virkon, which is available from vets, farm suppliers, etc. There's no reason not to buy this one on the Internet, which can save money. As far as the environment is concerned, a little paranoia can really help. You are strongly recommended to isolate the cat or cats if possible, and disinfect yourself with Virkon after any contact. Once the infection is thought to be clear, any soft furnishings, carpet or bedding that can be destroyed should be carefully wrapped and disposed of. Failing that, thorough steam cleaning is recommended. Plastic surfaces, including litter trays, are invariably scratched, and preferably should be disposed of, or cleaned or immersed with a strong bleach solution for at least ten minutes.

How do we treat ringworm?

Firstly, we have the cat or cats examined by a vet, and get treatment underway as soon as possible. Fortunately, we have a room with a hard floor where we can isolate the cats. We check them with a Wood's lamp so we know where we are starting from. (A Wood's lamp is expensive, at over £100, but can pay for itself if it prevents reinfection, as the treatment isn't cheap either.) If the ringworm does fluoresce, we can keep a check on progress. Before touching the cats, we put on vinyl gloves, waterproof trousers and disposable aprons. Tablets, cream and shampoo are applied as recommended, being very careful to be absolutely thorough. Before leaving the room, we spray the gloves with Virkon, then leave them in the room for re-use. The aprons are carefully folded to contain any spores and disposed of. Then any clothes that have come into contact with the cats, or the floor, are sprayed with Virkon, as are hands and other exposed skin, and the soles of our shoes. If you have carpets, spraying them with a generous amount of Virkon, especially the corners, will kill any spores. The same applies to furniture. It may be worth checking that the Virkon will not discolour fabrics, but if they are not properly treated you may as well destroy them anyway. We spray the floor and all exposed surfaces with Virkon every day.

It cannot be overemphasised that the only effective way to rid yourself of ringworm is to be very rigorous with preventing the infection spreading, and also lying dormant to recur later. It is much easier to do it right just once, than have it flare up again and again.

Further information

Ask your vet if you have any specific questions, or for more information see the following:

Pet Education