There’s nothing quite as lovely and fulfilling as sharing our hearts and homes with our cats. They provide endless entertainment and even cuddles. However, it’s not like we want to share everything with our cats (though they clearly think differently, given their propensity for bringing us dead rodents).
Of the things we’d most like to not share with our feline friends is ringworm. Both highly infectious and unsightly, ringworm is a common, persistent problem among cats. Not only does this infection end up costing pet owners money, but it often steals away time that could have been spent bonding with your purr-fect buddy.
Today, we’re going to outline what ringworm is, how it’s spread, what an official diagnosis should entail, how to treat it, and answer the most pressing question pet parents have when they discover it: can I handle my cat if they have ringworm?
What is Ringworm?
First things first: the name ‘ringworm’ is misleading. Ringworm has nothing to do with worms at all. Ringworm is a common fungal infection of the superficial layers of your cat’s skin, hair, and nails. Its name comes from the circular shape of the symptomatic hair loss of the infection.
It’s caused by a specific group of fungi known as dermatophytes. Once they make a home for themselves in their host’s body, they thrive by digesting keratin, the main protein structure of hair and nails. As they feast on keratin, they begin to rapidly multiply into millions of single-cell spores that can perpetuate the infection.
Some species of dermatophytes only infect one species, while others can transfer between different species of animals or between animals and humans. Cats who are infected with ringworm are likely infected with the dermatophyte variant known as Microsporum canis. While other variants exist, they’re not nearly as common.
How do Cats Get Ringworm?
There is no shielding your cat from ringworm. Ringworm spores can live just about anywhere in the world, from soil to surfaces to the skin of animals and humans. Cats often become infected with ringworm via coming into contact with infective spores from other infected animals, contaminated surfaces, and contaminated objects.
It should be noted that the mere presence of ringworm spores on a cat’s coat isn’t sufficient enough to spark infection. Rather, there are a minimum number of spores that must be present to establish an infection. However, there is no set minimum number that applies to all cats; it varies depending on a variety of factors.
That being said, some cats are predisposed to ringworm infection, such as long-hair cats. Long-hair cats are believed to be more predisposed to ringworm because their long hairs protect the spores from being effectively groomed away. Similarly, Geriatric and young cats are also particularly susceptible to developing ringworm due to their inability to properly groom themselves. Kittens, in particular, are a target due to their immature immune system that has trouble fighting any infection.
Even still, it’s not necessarily as simple as just: minimum number of spores present = cat is infected. Cats have evolved a number of natural defense mechanisms, such as grooming and sunbathing, to protect against these sorts of nasty skin infections. But should those defenses fail, the spores will begin invading and germinating.
What are the Symptoms of Ringworm in Cats?
An especially frustrating fact about ringworm for veterinarians, pets, and pet parents alike is that it can be quite difficult to even detect in the first place. Some cats who are infected with ringworm present no clinical signs at all, while others present a cornucopia of unsightly symptoms.
The classic symptom of ringworm is the appearance of one or more areas of patchy or circular hair loss accompanied by some form of crusting. A sort of “cigarette ash” scaling in the depths of the coat may also be visible. Other cats may develop alopecia in spots where the spores have infected the hair shafts. The scale of hair loss can range from mild to dramatic, and can be symmetrical or asymmetrical depending on which sites are infected. Most areas of hair loss will also often present with varying degrees of redness.
Other symptoms can include alterations to the color of your cat’s skin or hair, as well as the emergence of broken or stubby hair. Some unfortunate felines with ringworm may even develop a secondary condition known as onychomycosis, which is where the claws become rough and develop a scaly base. Many cats who develop ringworm will also begin grooming themselves in an excessive amount to stave off the irritating itching that may follow.
Regardless of whether your cat presents with all of these symptoms or none, any suspicion of ringworm should be immediately met with caution and a trip to the vet.
Is it Safe to Pet a Cat with Ringworm?
Answering this question is a bit tricky. Is it safe? As in, will you die if you pet a cat with the tell-tale red rings? No, probably not. But should you pet that ringworm riddled cat? No, probably not.
What you must keep in mind is that ringworm transmission occurs via direct contact with the fungal spores. While some species of ringworm are only transmittable between specific animal species, some are zoonotic and can thus infect humans. Unfortunately, it’s not like our eyes can immediately distinguish between variants of ringworm as safe or unsafe for humans.
But you shouldn’t necessarily jump to donning your hazmat suit if you suspect your cat has ringworm. Most healthy human adults are resistant to ringworm infection unless they make contact with a spore through a break in the skin like a scratch, scrape, or cut. However, as with cats, most elderly and young humans, as well as adults with weak immune systems, are susceptible to ringworm infection.
Moreover, in summary, there are a number of precautions you can take to protect yourself against infection if you suspect that your cat has ringworm.
How to Protect Yourself from Ringworm
Humans are thankfully just a tad more thorough with our hygiene than our pointy-eared buddies. For one, we have access to soap and the means to apply it whenever we want without issue. This makes the likelihood of just picking up ringworm from our cats a little bit lower than the risk they have of contracting it themselves.
However, it’s always good to be cautious, especially when you suspect one of your cats has become infected. First, remember to wear gloves, long sleeves, and an apron when handling a cat who has ringworm. Also, remember to wash your hands and clothes thoroughly each time you handle your pet if you suspect they have ringworm. If you have even the slightest abrasion or open wounds, even if it’s covered by your favorite superhero Band-Aid, minimize any contact of that spot with the infected surface.
Additionally, you’ll want to throw out all bedding, toys, supplies, and other paraphernalia that is possibly contaminated and buy new ones. (We know, it’s already expensive enough having a cat.) Some recommend simply washing all cat bedding in a good bleach solution followed by a plain water cycle in the wash machine. The regular washing and disinfecting your pet’s new bedding, toys, and dishes with a disinfectant spray can also reduce the risk of surface-to-skin transmission. Do not use Lysol, it’s not friendly to our felines. Apple cider vinegar is an excellent cleaner and its acidic nature repels fungal infections such a ringworm. You’ll also want to diligently vacuum your floors, and not just because you want to actually see your carpet again. Ringworm spores can still survive even on loose hairs, so vacuuming is an easy way to be thorough with your disinfection efforts. Follow this by disposing of the vacuum cleaner bag.
Perhaps most unfortunately, you may also want to consider isolating any infected cat during their treatment. If you have multiple cats, it’s safe to assume that they’re all infected if one is. In that case, you should aim to have each of them diagnosed and treated as soon as possible.
Nonetheless, a suspected ringworm infection necessitates that you regularly deep clean and disinfect your cats’ environment. Since spores can linger for long stretches of time, you may need to remain vigilant against possible reinfection for a long period of time, possibly up to two years after the initial infection.
How is Ringworm in Cats Diagnosed?
There are a variety of diagnostic procedures your veterinarian can deploy to uncover the presence of ringworm in your purry pal.
One of the most common tests is what’s known as a Wood’s lamp procedure. This is when affected hairs are placed on a surface known as a dermatophyte test medium. Then, the hairs are examined beneath a special ultraviolet light known as a Wood’s lamp. Hairs that begin to glow with a yellow-green or apple-green fluorescence are typically thought of as being infected by Microsporum canis.
However, the Wood’s lamp test is by no means definitive in diagnosing ringworm. Veterinarians often need to conduct what’s known as a fungal culture to completely discern whether or not an infection is present. During this procedure, scrapings of the skin and samples of the hair are taken and studied for signs of fungal growth in a laboratory.
If the technicians begin to see evidence of fungal growth consistent with Microsporum canis or other variants of ringworm, they will be able to officially diagnose the afflicted cat as suffering from the infection.
How is Ringworm in Cats Treated?
So, your cat’s got the bad news. He has ringworm. His hair is patchy, his skin is irritating, and he is just dying to get back to how things used to be, when he could cuddle up on you without you recoiling in fear.
Luckily, ringworm is by no means a fatal or even a debilitating disease. Modern veterinary science has innovated a cocktail of topical and oral treatments that are especially effective at eradicating ringworm when done in conjunction with aggressive clipping of the coat and environmental disinfection.
The first step in any effective treatment plan for feline ringworm is to determine whether the coat needs to be clipped. If your cat has long hair or lives with any humans who are immunocompromised, it’s likely they will need their coat clipped. Rest assured that this measure alone will save lots of money and time spent at the vet by reducing the chances for spores to continue spreading via shedded hairs.
After the clipping commences, your veterinarian will likely start your cat on a 1-2 treatment plan consisting of daily oral antifungal medication and twice-weekly topical therapy. Oral antifungal drugs that have been shown to be particularly effective at combating ringworm include griseofulvin, terbinafine, and itraconazole. Please keep in mind that itraconazole frequently has to be compounded into a liquid solution for administration.
There are a variety of effective topical products to choose from including medicated ointments, creams, and shampoos. If symptoms seem to encompass large parts of your cat’s body, a periodic full-body dip or rinse in whatever medicated solution is chosen may be necessary.
One topical treatment that is exceptionally effective at alleviating the discomfort of ringworm’s symptoms is Banixx Pet Care! Due to its remarkable anti-fungal properties, Banixx is capable of providing immediate, soothing relief to your kitty while delivering a damaging blow to fungal spores. While wearing disposable gloves, gently massage a cotton ball soaked in Banixx to your cat’s skin two to three times daily. Within minutes, your cat will begin feeling relief without having to rely on pesky antibiotics or steroids or some stinky, oily topical treatment.
Once your cat is feeling a bit better, you can take them to the vet and begin the process of eradicating this awful infection once and for all! In the meantime, you can learn more about how to keep your pointy-eared buddy happy and healthy through our blog!