I’m a foster mom for kittens. With my second litter, we had ringworm. I learned fast that not many people know much about ringworm… not even rescue, foster or humane society folks. I don’t know it all… but this much I know….
I’m not a vet, vet-tech, or any other form of expert. I’m writing this from first-person experience to help others who may encounter ringworm as a pet owner or foster home. I know that there is a lot of scary stuff on the web: I was scared by it. Unfortunately, as you know if you’ve been following the ‘Spice Rack’ kitten album, our young charges got ringworm. I’m writing this from memory a couple of months later and wish I’d written this during our journey. I read a ton when we ran head-first into this challenge.
Many cats are exposed to ringworm and don’t develop ringworm. Like you being exposed to the flu and not getting it – it depends on how strong your immune system is at the time of exposure, and how much you are exposed to it. Young cats (kittens under one year of age), old cats, and sick cats are most susceptible to it because their immune systems are already low or compromised. If left untreated, most cats will just get rid of it on their own – but over varying periods of time. A few cats can’t shake it on their own. Cats who have it will recover and go on to happy and long lives and rarely (if ever) have another outbreak.
WHAT IS RINGWORM?
Ringworm is not a worm at all. This name is just an old word for it since it manifests in a circle or ‘ring’. Ringworm is a fungal infection and it’s common. This fungus is often based around a hair follicle and will spread to other follicles in the area… I believe it feeds on the keratin. It will not kill or deeply harm the pet but it can be very hard to shake. There are two things that make ringworm a huge challenge: it’s VERY contagious and it’s difficult to get rid of in the environment. A perfect storm really.
It’s very contagious because it’s propagated by spores which can be airborne and on any surface. These spores are exceptionally hard to kill and can remain viable (contagious) for up to 13-15 months. No really! And the more one animal is in contact with another, the higher the likelihood that all will get it. Often, it is not caught until it has already spread… it’s very fast. Everything in the space can become a carrier of these spores- especially pet beds, blankets, toys, carpets, your clothes etc. It’s very easy to get, easy to spread, and very hard to get ahead of.
The other thing about ringworm is that its zoonotic. What? It’s a new word for me too – it means that ringworm jumps from one species to another. From cow to mouse to cat to dog … to human. It can lay latent in the soil for the next unsuspecting creature to walk by. So, yes, that means you can get it from contact with a contagious pet. It’s not species-specific – and the longer your pet is sick and shedding the virus the more likely you are to catch it.
Getting rid of it is a pain because you need to treat the animals and the entire contaminated space at the same time. Most cleaners cannot kill the spores or make limited difference, steam cleaning does not kill them, and soap/cleaners and water is pretty useless. Many breeders and animal shows have ongoing problems with ringworm, though they won’t admit it due to the stigma.
Humans can get ringworm (called other things like tinea) from other humans. These are part of the same fungus group, but not the same strain that your cat can get. Here’s your ‘eeww’ for the day… at any given time about 25% of humans on the planet have a form of ringworm. In people it mostly manifests as athletes foot, jock itch, or a form on the scalp. It is helped along by damp conditions.
HOW CAN YOU TELL IF IT’S RINGWORM?
Ringworm often manifests in a small patch of fur being lost. It didn’t look bad at all… just a small furless patch above an eye on one kitten. We noticed it and acted on it immediately. The kittens all lost some fur in patches eventually, but their case was milder because it was caught and treated early.
We noticed fur loss on one kitten, but were utterly inexperienced to know what it could be. It continued for about 2 days so we got in touch with the rescue right away. They had experience with ringworm in the past with one animal getting it and had challenges as it immediately spread to all in that one home. By the 4-5th day we had the kitten at the vet- who diagnosed it as ringworm. The faster the diagnosis the better, so you can act faster to contain it.
The doctor used a woods lamp (black light) to look at the affected area. If you see it glow, it’s ringworm. However, I have subsequently learned that there are over 100 varieties of ringworm, and most but not all glow. So glowing is diagnosis, but not glowing does doesn’t mean much. There are skin sample tests that can be done.
We learned it was ringworm right away: Ginger’s spot glowed. For us the source was easy to find: only her mom and siblings had access to her and the room she was in had never had an animal in it since the house was built. Cinnamon (the mom) was an asymptomatic carrier. The ringworm infection was passed to little Ginger by the time she was 5 weeks old through nursing. And this meant that if one kitten had it, they would all have it. Sure enough, all came down with it inside of a week, but Cinnamon remained asymptomatic.
** please read the note at the end of this as well, as it is relevant
WHAT DID WE DO?
As per the vet instructions, we immediately started on a topical cream for the problem. This was applied 1x a day. We would have liked to do 2x a day but with work, the mornings were not feasible for the time it required. One week later we began internal meds (liquid) given orally by syringe. All kittens got this treatment for 4 weeks, as did their mom since we couldn’t let her re-infect the kittens. The ointment application was 6 weeks since it started before the internal meds.
The rescue had opted for a more natural solution the first time they encountered ringworm (dipping the kitties in solution, isolation etc) and found that they became easily re-infected. I also know that two of the kittens from that group were traumatized by the dipping treatments and became fearful of people and less social from isolation. We concurred with the decision to go to prescription meds for a number of reasons and the vet felt it was safe for them though they were young.
If you treat the cat with medications but don’t address the space, then the spores in the space can re-infect the cat(s) as they recover.
Immediately upon diagnosis, we locked down the room. This was easier in our case since we had our foster kittens in one room only. Luckily ringworm manifested about 1.5 weeks before we introduced them to the rest of the house and its occupants. We always quarantine unvaccinated cats/kittens and new fosters for 6+ weeks. We have wall-to-wall carpet (which would harbor spores) and one of our cats is older (so more susceptible to ringworm) so I decided on a full-out lock down. No items could leave the room unless they had been ‘treated’. Litter and anything else from the room went straight to the outside garbage can … no stops… and with major hand washing.
With ringworm, you must simultaneously treat the animal and the ‘infected’ space. 10% bleach solution is the only thing I know to be fully effective at killing the spores. What is suggested is that you use both a strong vacuum and the 10% bleach solution. I chose not to use the vacuum because there would be no way to clean the vacuum 100% after its use with ringworm. It’s not recommended that you use it in the rest of the house again (where it would transmit the infection). I didn’t want to buy another vacuum for this purpose only (suggested method) and luckily the room was tiled. Since it was tiled and without upholstery, the bleach was more important than the vacuum for us. I brought in cleaning implements which stayed in the room for the duration of the treatments. Everything was discarded afterwards to avoid any re-infection or spread.
Natasha’s Bleach Protocols: Every toy, carpet, blanket, bed, etc was washed with 10% bleach solution each week during treatment. There are varying reports of how long anything has to be in contact with the bleach solution to be rid of the spores – I followed the 10 second rule. The room was cleaned from the top down (since spores would settle downwards) and every surface cleaned to saturation with the bleach solution. Since the kittens could not go to another room during this time, they were locked in the shower stall for the 45 minute clean of the walls/floors – with the windows open and the fan on. I should note that bleach is very strong, and every effort was made to minimize the kittens’ level of contact with it. I would not use bleach on kitten things in any other instance other than ringworm.
In addition to the weekly clean, all surfaces were wiped down, swept and wet-swiffered every 2-3 days to remove as many of the spores as possible and avoid re-contamination. The HVAC system in our home was run on a new hepa-filter, and physical filters were placed in the room’s heating vents to prevent ringworm spores from entering and being transferred through the house. As soon as the kittens were done the meds and got a clean bill of health, we changed to a new filter again on the HVAC system.
We kept ‘kitty clothes’ inside their room. We would strip down and leave ‘outside’ clothes out, and put on ‘inside kitty clothes’ inside the room. These ‘kitten clothes’ were long pants, long sleeves and socks; in order to keep the number of spores in contact with our skin at a minimum. These clothes were washed with bleach to kill spores.
The conventional wisdom is to keep your contact with the cats to a minimum during treatment because you can catch ringworm – this is why cats with ringworm are usually kept in isolation. We obviously needed 40 minutes a day for their topical and oral treatments and time to clean litters. I was just past litter training, and in the middle of socializing and play-training our fosters. I opted to continue spending as much time with them as I had in the past; feeling that human-socialization was more important to their long-term health and happiness.
In order to protect ourselves, I purchased otc selsun blue shampoo (extra strength) which was indicated for tinea (same fungal infection slightly different strain). We used this as our shower gel and shampoo exclusively during the treatment of the kittens. This worked to keep us ringworm free with two caveats. One, J got one spot (1inx1in) of ringworm on his forearm – which we were checking ourselves for. This was likely because he did all the kitten’s topical cream application for the ringworm, and was in physical contact with it daily for a month. My solution was for him to treat it by dabbing undiluted bleach (yes I know its corrosive) directly on the spot 2x a day and letting it dry. During the day, I asked him to keep the spot covered by a band-aid to stop any transmission. It went away quickly, without irritation, and with no further spots. All clothing and linens he was in contact with prior to it being covered had to be washed in 10% bleach solution. (Not pretty on the nice sheets, let me tell you.) Secondly, I developed a rash from too much overall use of the medicated shampoo on my body … red itchy bumps. I take full responsibility for this since I was using a product for a use other than what it suggests – and after about 3 days of discontinued use, the rash went away.
All kittens recovered fully and got rid of ringworm. They seem to have no health impediments from the early use of internal meds. Our other pets did not get ringworm. We all have been ringworm-free since.
Unfortunately, there is a stigma with animals who have had ringworm. The best shelters and rescues will disclose this information to the potential adopters. With our ‘spice rack’ kittens, their medical history and signed medical records were given to each adoptive parent. The fact that they had ringworm did scare a number of good adopters away from this litter of kittens.
We kept one kitten – I am fully aware that our little cat may one day get it again because ringworm lies dormant in the host. It could potentially surface again in times of great stress or illness. I have to say honestly that there is a strong likelihood that our other two cats (one raised by me from 8 weeks old and the other an animal-control rescue) have been exposed to ringworm long ago. Likely at a time when their immune systems were healthy and strong, and they avoided catching the fungal infection … since neither have ever shown any signs of it. One was allowed to go outside in my yard and the 3-5 yards adjacent to ours (and could get it from mouse feces, earth, other cats etc) and the other from her life on the streets. I think many fears are unfounded… but are based on the craziness involved in getting rid of ringworm.
I don’t stay in hotel rooms designated for pets, don’t take my kitties on trips, and have never sent them (yet) to boarding. It only takes one inexperienced pet owner, someone who doesn’t care that their pet has ringworm, or one infection in a hotel room a year ago to reintroduce this to my home. While some of these places do a great job of trying to keep things very clean, I doubt they are aware of the rigors required to avoid ringworm transmission or follow the ‘natasha bleach protocols’.
Phew… that was a lot off the top of my head! I have not listed any references here since I am writing this from memory. There are great resources out there (but check where your info is coming from). I tended to seek vet information, vet medicine journals, and also first person accounts from rescues or breeders (only a few are honest). There is no one solution… do what works for you.
It was difficult, stressful and very tiring… but in retrospect, there is nothing I’d do differently given our circumstances.
If you have questions let me know… but remember I have no professional background!
**About a month after the treatment had concluded and the vet gave her a full health okay, Saffron developed 5 small lesions on her body. They were little scabs that were persistent. They lasted about 3-4 weeks and then went away on their own without ever becoming anything else. These were not play induced (there was a 6th which was just a play-scratch and healed much quicker), but I believe these were remnants of the infection surfacing in her body. They did not glow under the black light. My mildly-educated guess is that she was not contagious during this time. Like the scabs of chicken-pox not being contagious. And like the chicken pox virus with everyone who’s had it, ringworm lies dormant in my kitty now.
**Sadly I didn’t have the forethought to photograph the ringworm. In fact, I was busy trying to get photos without it thinking ahead to their coming adoptions. One kitten lost all the fur on her inside leg, one lost a large spot of fur behind her ear, some had patchy paws, and most lost some fur around their noses and mouths (where they were nursing). Because it was caught and treated early our kittens had a mild case.