"It's ringworm." Ringworm is a dreaded diagnosis for pet owners, and for good reason. Ringworm is a highly contagious fungal infection that can affect cats, dogs, and yes, humans, and it ranges from mild to severe. In mild cases, some pets show few or no symptoms at all; in severe instances, symptoms can include patchy hair loss, broken hair, crusting of the skin, and itchiness. Humans who contract ringworm report many of the same symptoms including an itchy rash, hair loss, blisters, or scaling scalp. Because ringworm is fungal, it's easily transmitted through contact with skin scales or infected fur. Infected tissue can linger for weeks on bedding, in dishes, or anywhere else pets use frequently...that's part of the reason ringworm spreads like wildfire at at boarding facilities and groomers' offices.
Diagnosing Ringworm in Pets
How can you tell if your pet has ringworm? If your pet is showing no symptoms at all, he probably doesn't need to be tested unless you have some reason to believe he may have contracted ringworm (i.e. one of the other dogs at doggy day care has been diagnosed.) If you notice any skin issues with your dog or cat including scaliness, flaking, patchiness, or hair loss, contact your vet for an accurate diagnosis. There are several ways to diagnose ringworm including inspection by a Wood's ultraviolet lamp, microscopic inspection of hair follicles, or through a lab-tested culture.
How Ringworm in Pets is Treated
Because ringworm is a fungal infection, the fungus itself must be killed to "rid" your pet of his infection. Actual treatment will depend on the severity of the infection; treatment usually lasts several weeks or even longer. Your veterinarian will probably prescribe a medicated shampoo to use on your pet as a first-step. These shampoos are often used either in conjunction with or in lieu of a topical ointment; both are likely to contain a fungus-killing compound like miconazole or lime sulfur. If the infection is particularly pervasive, she may also suggest you shave your pet's fur (or at least clip it near fungal spots) to make his skin a less hospitable place for the fungus to live. Serious cases of ringworm often require the additional use of oral medication to effectively treat. Talk to your vet about your options and ask what she would do for her own pet. If your pet has been diagnosed with ringworm, the underlying fungus that causes the infection is now probably all over your house. (Sorry.) It's imperative that you immediately clean all affected areas, and do so more than once as your pet heals. How do you do that?
Removing Hair from Surfaces (Step One):
- Vacuum all carpets, including area rugs, thoroughly. After vacuuming carpeting, dispose of the vacuum bag immediately and wear gloves when handling the vacuum bag. If your vacuum has a canister rather than a bag, see step below on Disinfecting Surfaces for advice on how to clean it thoroughly between uses. Professional steam cleaning is also an effective option.
- Use disposable products such as Swiffer® pads on hard surface floors. Avoid brooms as they are difficult to thoroughly clean and disinfect after use. Use duct tape or lint rollers to remove hair from upholstered furniture.
- Launder fabrics or other soft materials to remove hair. Any water temperature and any cleaner are fine for decontaminating fabric. If possible, wash exposed materials and pet bedding separately from non-exposed materials. Do not overload machine to ensure maximal agitation and remove hairs.
- If your pet's bed or other upholstered surfaces cannot be washed, it's best to seal them thoroughly, throw away, and buy new items. Don't introduce anything new until your pet is fully healed!
Disinfecting Surfaces (Step Two):
- Sodium hypochlorite (chlorine bleach) when diluted 1:10 or 1:32 has good antifungal activity and is inexpensive. Be sure to prepare fresh solutions each time you clean because diluted bleach solutions can degrade over time.
- For most disinfectants, contact time is important. Accelerated hydrogen peroxide and potassium peroxymonosulfate are each effective disinfectants for dermatophyte (fungal) spores when they are allowed to sit for at least 10 minutes on the affected surface. These substances are found in many over-the-counter disinfectant solutions available today such as OXONE®.
Unfortunately, you need to clean everything your pet has come into contact with as well as any areas where your pet might have shed hair, skin particles, or dander. That includes your curtains, your bedding, and even furniture near where your pet spends time. How often do you need to clean? That depends on multiple factors including the number of infected patients and whether the patients are being treated with only systemic antifungal therapy or also topical antifungal therapy. A general rule of thumb is if only 1-2 infected animals are present in the household and receiving topical therapy, then twice-weekly cleaning followed by disinfection is usually enough.
Questions about ringworm? Ask your vet! Ringworm is incredibly common among dogs and cats and it's nothing to be ashamed of. If you treat it quickly and consistently, you'll be back to normal in no time.
Does your pet have ringworm?