Ringworm in Cats
A Horrible Thing to Have?
Well, yes and no. Ringworm is one of those diseases known as zoonotic, which means it is easily passed from animals to people, and vice-versa. First of all, the name is misleading and has its origins in a time period before medical science was well established. The doctors back then presumed that worms crawled under the skin, causing the characteristic circular lesions.
Aside from the rather unsightly appearance, the main symptom is intense itching. Scratching can both inflame the area and spread the problem to adjacent skin surfaces. People can cover lesions on the arms or other exposed areas with a bandage for social reasons, but animals will tend to lose fur in the affected area. If a poor kitty already itches, you don’t want to put anything with sticky tape around its fur. However, most folks would rather not have to shave their pets.
It is, unfortunately, highly contagious, so extra care must be taken with regards to cleanliness, both around the house and with personal hygiene.
What Does Ringworm Look Like?
What Causes Ringworm?
Contrary to its name, the condition is actually caused by a fungus. There are over forty different species of fungus that can cause ringworm. The specific subtypes though, are Trichophyton, Microsporum, and Epidermophyton. Collectively, they fall under the name of tinea. It’s closely related to the fungus, which causes athlete’s foot, (tinea pedis), and jock itch, (tinea cruris).
Most of these live around or near us, traveling with us, most of the time. It just takes the right conditions for it to take hold and cause the problem.
Don’t Panic If Your Cat Has Ringworm
Calmly check all your pets for signs of the infection. The first symptom is usually scratching; a lot of scratching. The condition, as mentioned, is very itchy. At first, you may suspect fleas, but in the absence of any other evidence of fleas, such as seeing fleas, getting flea bites yourself, or seeing flea ‘dirt’ (actually the feces) on light-colored surfaces where the cats sleep, suspect ringworm instead.
It may cause a grainy, sandy feeling on the skin inside the outer ear. Additionally, they may have scratched, bitten, and licked at the area sufficiently to create a bald spot larger than that caused by the initial breakout. That’s sad, but it also makes diagnosis easier.
Check the areas where they are scratching. Often it is in or near the ears; top of the head; near the tail; their “armpits;” and on the legs. It almost always causes loss of hair in the affected area. Look for the telltale pinkish ring.
If in doubt, there’s a surefire test: get hold of a black light, (also called a Wood’s Lamp), take the cat into a dark room, and shine the light on the suspect areas. If it is Ringworm, it will fluoresce bright green. Then you have your diagnosis.
If you have multiple animals, check them all. The ones who test positive should be quarantined from the others, or they will get it as well, and then you will be fighting a long battle with them passing it back and forth.
The entire course of infection and treatment can be a royal pain the drain, and can take several weeks, but happily, it does not do any real damage to the kitty. Which is to say, it’s not life-threatening. Kitty won’t feel very happy for a while, but will soon return to normal.
The usual treatment given by many veterinarians is Miconazole, which is a topical, anti-fungal cream. You can also use Clotrimazole, which is easily gotten with no prescription. You might know this stuff by another generic term: it’s merely athlete’s foot cream, and easily obtained.
If this needs to be applied in an area where the cat can reach to lick, it will taste terrible, and they will end up salivating huge amounts, running out of their mouth with a foamy appearance, and they will be obviously unhappy. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to learn, and it will happen again. Apply the cream to the affected area twice or three times a day, and rub in well. Wash your hands well afterwards, and also between treating other animals.
In severe cases, you might need to use a lime-sulphur dip for kitty. They will hate it, and it stinks, but it will help, and it is available without a prescription. They will think you hate them, as it needs doing twice a week! The thing about it is, you don't rinse it off. you just towel them dry afterwards, so this is where you might really need that cone collar, so they don't lick themselves until dry.
Talk to your veterinarian if you seem unable to fix the problem at home. But don’t wait too long; the scratching and biting can, in addition to spreading the problem to other areas, lead to a secondary inflammation and infection.
Itch Remedies? Ask Your Vet
If kitty is really miserable from the itching, your veterinarian may be able to offer a remedy to address that aspect. You may also need to resort to a cone collar, often called ‘the cone of shame,’ to prevent them from being able to reach the area. It will prevent biting and licking at their hindquarters, as well as keep them from scratching their head.
For humans, there are also available prescription oral tablets (terbinafine hydrochloride, sold under the brand name of Lamisil®), taken on a six-week course. It is also available for cats, in dosages based upon weight. Consult with your veterinarian. They can also do a skin-scraping test for positive identification.
- Vacuum carpets daily; use a disinfectant spray on such non-washable surfaces
- Vacuum and wash cat’s bedding (if not washable, spray with an anti-fungal spray)
- Vacuum and wash your bedding, if kitty sleeps with you (and banish them for the duration)
- Mop bare floors
- Keep litter boxes clean
- Use towels only once, and wash in hot water
- Be vigilant with personal hygiene
- Keep children away from affected pets
- Be obsessive about hand-washing; use a hand sanitizer between animals
In severe cases, it might be necessary to shampoo your carpeting with a sanitizing detergent. Just be sure it’s one made for carpet shampoo machines, or you could have a real soapy mess on your hands.
Always consult your veterinarian promptly if you see signs of a worsening problem or secondary infection.
Can You Get it Again?
Unfortunately, yes. The fungus (scientific name, tinea) lives in moist places, and also survives on surfaces touched by an infected person or animal. If the problem reappears within a few weeks of the end of treatment, it is likely that it is not a case of catching it a second time, but more likely that the treatment may have ceased too soon, and there has been a relapse based upon the incubation period for the fungus.
There is some marginal evidence suggesting immunity may be gained after having an infection from this agent, but it is inconclusive, as it has not been tested on people, though there has been experimental work with vaccines on animals in a laboratory setting.
I’m not a veterinarian, but I’ve had a bout with this in our cats, my husband caught a dose of it, and several kittens with the rescue group with which I volunteer had it. My information is based upon these experiences and additional research online. Best advice: always consult your veterinarian when your pets develop a problem.
John Campbell. “Body Defence Against Ringworm (Tinea). Ivory Research.com. Insta Research Ltd., London, England. Web 13 January 2017.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Definition of Ringworm.” U.S. Dept. of Health and Human Services. 6 December 2015. Web 13 January 2017.
NCBI. “Treatment of Shelter Cats with Oral Terbinafine and Concurrent Lime Sulphur Rinses.” National Center for Biotechnology Information, U.S. National Library of Medicine. 23 August 2013. Web 13 January 2017.
Kontick, T. “Drug efficacy of terbinafine hydrochloride (Lamisil) during oral treatment of cats, experimentally infected with Microsporum canis.” Ibid. April 2002. Web 13 January 2017.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. It is not meant to substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, or formal and individualized advice from a veterinary medical professional. Animals exhibiting signs and symptoms of distress should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
© 2017 Liz Elias