Despite what it’s name might have you believe, ringworm doesn’t involve a worm. It’s a very common fungal infection that affects the skin, hair, and nails. Medically referred to as dermatophytosis, it also happens to be one of the most common skin disorders found in cats.
If you suspect your cat may have ringworm, approach with caution, because it’s highly contagious and capable of transmitting from animal to human. It’s possible for a cat to carry ringworm spores and not show any symptoms, but most of the time the signs will manifest the same.
Symptoms of Ringworm in Cats
Following initial contact, it takes approximately one to two weeks before lesions and other symptoms of ringworm begin to show up in cats. The following symptoms are typically found on your cat’s chin, head, ears, and forelimbs:
- Circular lesions with scaly centers
- Lesions with pustules
- Generally irritated skin
- Flakey bald spots with red centers
- Malformed nails – rough, pitted, scaly
- Mild to severe shedding and hair loss
- If entire body is infected it may cause scaly and greasy skin
Some cats, mostly long-haired breeds, are known for being asymptomatic carriers. Meaning that despite carrying harmful spores, they don’t show any symptoms. The tricky part is, asymptomatic carriers are still contagious — they can transmit the bacteria to other animals and even infect humans.
Note: Ringworm presents very similarly to staph infections, and in some cases, it appears as a generic skin rash, rather than circular lesions. Thus, it’s important to make sure you work with your vet to reach a definitive diagnosis.
Causes of Ringworm in Cats
Ringworm in cats is caused by directly contacting fungal spores on a contaminated source such as other animals, household surfaces and objects, or even humans. A cat can get ringworm by touching an infected animal or indirectly by touching materials like bedding and carpet that have contaminated skin cells. These spores feed off of skin, hair and nail proteins, which allow them to rapidly grow and multiply.
Unlike some bacteria, ringworm is a very resilient fungi that doesn’t necessarily need a warm, moist environment to thrive for long periods of time. It can survive in common places like bedding, furniture, dishes, carpet, or hair brushes for up to 18 months.
Ringworm is a zoonotic disorder, meaning it can be transferred from animal to animal and animal to human, and vice versa. Small children are especially at risk due to their underdeveloped immune systems and exploratory nature. Healthy adult humans are usually only susceptible to infection from an animal if they have a pre-existing skin lesion or cut.
While most healthy adult cats have built an immunity to ringworm, younger and older cats have weak immune systems that cannot easily defend against infection. Your cat may also be more prone to getting ringworm if he suffers from anxiety, malnutrition, or if he has other diseases, parasites, or viruses. Genetically, Persian and Himalayan breeds are known for being the most prone to ringworm.
Catteries and animal shelters are breeding grounds for harmful bacteria, which can quickly spread from cat to cat. Be cautious when bringing home an animal from a cattery or animal shelter — if the environmental conditions are questionable, you may want to quarantine your cat for a week or two before introducing them to the entire household.
Treating Ringworm in Cats
Your vet will typically prescribe a topical ointment or shampoo to treat ringworm in cats that will kill the offending fungus. In some cases, oral medication may be required. Due to ringworm’s resilience, your treatment plan may last for several months.
The vet may also recommend that your cat wear a wide cone to prevent him from licking the medication and scratching lesions. During the recovery period it’s very important to maintain a clean environment for your cat to prevent recurrence.
Preventing Ringworm in Felines
Some cases of ringworm in cats manifest with very mild symptoms, and at times it can even be undetectable. So it’s important to frequently check your cat’s skin, and pay close attention to any behavioral changes.
Oftentimes, cats will contract ringworm from other animals or cats. Therefore, it is important to always be health conscious when bringing other animals into your home.
Maintaining a clean, sanitary environment is the most effective way to keep your kitty and your household, ringworm free. Ringworm spores are very light — they can live in hair and dust. When cleaning, try to avoid methods like sweeping and dusting, which ultimately just send the spores airborne.
It is recommended you vacuum or use a wet sweeper (such as a Swiffer) to clean your home. In addition, steam clean your carpets, replace air duct filters, paint over rusted materials, and make sure all textiles and surfaces are sanitized regularly.