Although the name suggests otherwise, ringworm isn't caused by a worm at all-but a fungus that can infect the skin, hair and nails. Not uncommon in cats, this highly contagious disease can lead to patchy, circular areas of hair loss with central red rings. Also known as dermatophytosis, ringworm often spreads to other pets in the household-and to humans, too.
What Are the General symptoms of Ringworm?
Classic symptoms of ringworm in cats include skin lesions that typically appear on the head, ears and forelimbs. Ringworm can cause flaky bald patches that sometimes look red in the center. In mild cases, there may be localized areas of redness or simply dandruff, while more severe infections can spread over a cat's entire body. It's also possible for a pet to carry ringworm spores and not show any symptoms whatsoever.
How Do Cats Get Ringworm?
A cat can get ringworm directly through contact with an infected animal-or indirectly through contact with bedding, dishes and other materials that have been contaminated with the skin cells or hairs of infected animals. Ringworm spores are notoriously hardy and can survive in the environment for more than a year!
Which Cats Are Prone to Ringworm Infection?
Any cat can develop ringworm, but kittens less than a year old and geriatric cats are most prone to infection, while longhaired cats and those who are immunocompromised are also more susceptible. Ringworm can quickly spread in shelters or other crowded environments; warm and humid conditions tend to promote ringworm infections.
What Should I Do If I Think My Cat Has Ringworm?
Because infection can potentially spread over a cat's body, it is important that you see your vet for an accurate diagnosis if you suspect your pet has ringworm. And because the infection can easily spread to you and other animals in the household, it's a smart idea to immediately quarantine your cat until a veterinarian can confirm a diagnosis. You should also thoroughly wash your hands after you touch your cat.
How Is Ringworm Diagnosed?
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 an ultraviolet light to 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.
How Is Ringworm Treated?
Treatment of ringworm depends on the severity of the infection. A veterinarian may prescribe a shampoo or ointment that contains a special medication to kill the fungus. In some cases, oral medications are necessary. In order to ensure that you've eradicated this resistant and hardy fungus, treatment may have to be given for several months or more and fungal cultures rechecked periodically. It's also important to treat the cat's environment, too, to prevent infection from recurring.
How Can I Prevent Ringworm from Spreading?
If your veterinarian has diagnosed your cat with ringworm, he or she will explain what you must do to prevent the fungus from spreading to your other pets-and to the human members of the household. But keep in mind that if you have other pets, it's likely that most of them have been exposed as well. Your veterinarian may recommend that you do the following:
- Bathe all pets in the household with a medicated rinse or shampoo.
- Wash the infected animals' bedding and toys with a disinfectant that kills ringworm spores.
- Discard items that are impossible to thoroughly disinfect (carpeted cat trees, etc.)
- Frequently vacuum to rid the house of infected hairs and skin cells. (Yes, the fungus can survive on hair and skin that your cat sheds!)
As a commonsense precaution, it is a smart idea to thoroughly wash your hands after you bathe or touch your cat.
What Can Happen If Ringworm Is Left Untreated?
If a cat with ringworm is not properly treated, the lesions can spread over large areas of the animal's body, causing hair loss and skin infections.