Debunking the Myth of Ringworms

“Ring around the rosy, pocket full of posies, ashes, ashes”…”ring around the collar”…ring, ring, ring, someone is calling, ringworm…what? When we think about ringworm in veterinary medicine it neither makes a ringing sound nor is it a worm. It is actually a fungal infection that may cause circular or “ring-like” skin lesions, hence the name. More properly, it is named dermatophytosis, and it typically affects superficial layers of the skin, although fungal infections can occur in the nails and keratinized layers of the hairs. The two most common species of dermatophytes we diagnose in pets are Mircrosporum sp. and Trichophyton sp., although there can be many more.

These fungal infections are more commonly seen in cats, but can occur in dogs as well. It is considered a zoonotic disease since we, as people, can “get ringworm.” Exposure or contact with dermatophytes may or may not result in an infection with either pets or people. Sometimes an infection in an animal can also go undetected since there are no outward visible lesions. These animals can be simply in a carrier state. However, they can still transmit the fungus to others if exposure occurs.

Pets that are at a higher risk of contracting “ringworm” are possibly from a cattery or place with larger numbers of cats. Poor nutrition can increase the risk of disease. Any medications or diseases that weaken the immune system will make a pet or person more susceptible to contracting a dermatophyte should they come into contact with the fungus. These dermatophytes, or fungal spores, live in the environment and when a susceptible pet comes into contact with them, or another infected animal,voilà, ringworm!

Lesions are usually scaly, itchy patches of skin with hair loss in a circular pattern. However, a skin lesion such as this is not diagnostic of “ringworm” since other skin diseases can have similar signs. Tests to confirm dermatophytosis may include a quick scan using a Wood’s lamp and a fungal culture. Hairs are plucked from the periphery of the skin lesion and placed on a special test media and incubated. A color change in the test media can indicate a positive test for dermatophytes. It may take several days for a change to occur or to consider the test negative. If  suspected to be positive, a small sample of growth is examined under a microscope looking for fungal spores. This not only helps to confirm a diagnosis but the species of fungus can also be identified by the appearance of the spores. Once confirmed, or sometimes based on a high index of suspicion, treatment will begin.

Treatment may be local or systemic depending upon severity. Medicated shampoos may be incorporated into the treatment regime. Often, oral antifungal medications are used. Sometimes this can be frustrating and expensive with multi-pet households. The environment should also be treated. Children and older adults or adults who may be immuno-suppressed tend to be more susceptible to infection so more precautions with exposure should be taken with these groups of individuals. Washing of hands and typical good hygiene practices also help.

Let’s keep the rings on our fingers and in our games. If you are suspicious that your pet may have “ringworm,” make sure to confirm this with your veterinarian. If you experience skin lesions, consult your physician. Treat earlier rather than later. Treatment success is typically very good. We want to play with our pets and not have the diseases they may carry play with us. This way we won’t, “…all fall down!”

If you have health questions about your pet, please post them in the comments below. You can also visit Pet Health Central where you can direct message us your questions. Talk to you soon!

-Photo Credit: From flickr Paulo Ordoveza

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