Ringworm is one of the most misleadingly named cat health issues out there. It’s not a worm at all, but a skin infection caused by a fungus called a dermatophyte. Dermatophytes feed on the protein in cats’ nails, skin, and fur, causing uncomfortable skin symptoms like rashes and scaling.
How Do Cats Get Ringworm?
Ringworm is extremely contagious among cats. It spreads when an infected cat comes into contact with an uninfected cat, transferring fungal spores to the uninfected cat’s fur.
Recent adoptions can bring ringworm into a household, and the infection might not be obvious on the infected cat at first. It can take up to 21 days for lesions to appear on an infected cat. By then, the new cat and the fungal spores may have already made themselves at home. It is important to note not all infected cats will show symptoms.
Ringworm is also transferable from a human to a pet and pet to human. Though more rare, cats are more likely to transmit ringworm infections to humans than the other way around. Children may be particularly at-risk for recurring ringworm infections from cats with asymptomatic ringworm infections.
For that reason, it’s extremely important for pet parents to wash their hands after coming home from being with other animals.
Symptoms of Ringworm
The name “ringworm” comes from the condition’s most characteristic symptom — a ring-shaped lesion on the cat’s skin. These lesions usually appear on the cat’s head, ears, back, and front legs, but they can appear in other places as well.
Other symptoms of ringworm include:
- Patchy hair loss
- Thickened skin in bald areas
- Dandruff and scaliness
- Red, crusty, sore patches of skin
Ringworm symptoms in cats can be very mild. In many cases, hair loss is the only noticeable symptom. It’s looks quite different when compared to a ringworm infection presenting on humans, which tend to be a flaky and scaly skin rash rather than hair loss with red rings. Itchiness can occur, but if a cat is itchy and infected with ringworm the itchiness is more likely caused by skin irritation or dryness rather than the infection itself.
Ringworm treatment usually involves a combination of antifungal medication and anti-fungal shampoo. Long-haired cats may need to have their hair cut short to make the treatment process easier.
It’s also important to treat the environment since an infected cat can shed fungal spores into the furniture or carpets, potentially infecting other pets or people. Daily vacuuming is important whenever a cat or person in the house has ringworm.
Disinfecting cleaning products can be used when cleaning shared areas and surfaces in the home, but it is not as intensely needed as other cleaning methods such as vacuuming up cat hair daily and regular, thorough washing of bedding. Diluted bleach can be used to clean surfaces and in washing to effectively clean in a way that is also safe for the cat.
Ask a vet for advice and recommendations.
Good Riddance to Ringworm: First Steps
It’s important for pet parents to speak with a vet right away about cat skin care if they suspect ringworm. The infection is highly contagious, especially to people and pets with compromised immune systems.
Pet parents can start with a Wood’s lamp screening test, an easy visual inspection that uses ultraviolet light to illuminate the ringworm fungus.
Shelters and vet’s offices use these lamps regularly, but pet parents can also buy them online to perform the test at home. When held close to the skin in a dark room, the Wood’s lamp will make the affected hair shaft glow apple-green.
It should be noted, however, that some types of ringworm do not glow under the UV light, so if this screening test is negative the cat may still be positive for ringworm.
Pet parents without a Wood’s lamp, or whose cats test negative but are showing common symptoms of ringworm, should have a fungal culture test done at a vet’s office or via home testing kit with certified lab review.
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