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It may be surprising for some to learn that the skin infection
known as ringworm, or dermatophytosis, is not actually a worm or
parasite at all, but a fungus. The lesion will not always be in the
shape of a ring, but it will appear scaly in the center with a red
irritated color on the periphery.
"Household pets generally pick up the disease from other
animals. Where the infection occurs on the skin there will be a
bald patch, but sometimes they may just have a few broken hairs,"
says Dr. Leon Russell, professor at the Texas A&M College of
Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences.
Ringworm is highly contagious and can pass from person to person
either through direct contact, through contact with an infected
object, contact with an infected pet or infected soil. Humans can
contract ringworm from animals very easily by touching the infected
area directly or through contact with objects which have been
exposed contaminated with the fungus or its spores.
Animal ringworm types, usually from a dog, cat, or rodent are
more likely to be transmitted to young children. With children it
is often found in the scalp region.
"Fungi that mostly live in human skin are called
'anthropophilic', those that live on animals are called
'zoophilic', and those that prefer to live in soil are called
'geophilic' fungi," explains Russell.
The anthropophilic ringworm is mostly seen in developing
countries such as Africa, or parts of Asia by human to human
transmission. Many times this occurs from sharing hairbrushes or
combs, and unless someone's immune system is highly compromised
then the disease is not life threatening.
"Tinea pedis, or athlete's foot, is the most common form of
ringworm found in humans and the most difficult to treat. The rash
most often appears in the moist areas between the toes, though the
rest of the foot can be infected as well. Itching and burning are
typical symptoms," says Russell.
Community swimming pools, used towels, health clubs, steam rooms
and showers are common areas where athlete's foot can be
"Rarely humans can transmit the disease to animals. An example
of this might be if a person with athletes foot comes home, takes
their shoes off, and scratches or rubs ol' Fido with their bare
foot," says Russell.
Livestock such as cattle or horses are more likely to have
ringworm when they are kept inside their stalls in the winter
because of the rubbing up against wood and other stall
"These cases are seen more in the Northern parts of the United
States where the weather is colder. Generally, when the weather
becomes warmer again and the animals are turned outside into the
sunshine of pastures, the disease begins to clear up," says
In horses ringworm is seen usually in places where rubbing may
occur, such as where a saddle or bridle might touch. Adults are
more likely to contract ringworm from a horse rather than children,
due to occupational exposure and handling.
The effects of ringworm tend to be superficial ones of
appearance, though, if not treated in animals it can easily spread
and cause scar tissue.
Some people, mostly children, who contract ringworm from a pet
can sometimes have a reaction with their skin tissue resulting in
bulgy lesion-looking patches on the skin called Kerions. These are
more severe in appearance compared to the normal reaction and can
be very upsetting for the person.
"The treatment for ringworm in humans or animals is usually
going to involve a topical medication. Oral medication may be
needed if the ringworm is chronic, and therefore can sometimes take
up to three or four months to clear. It is certainly not a reason
to get rid of a dog or cat because it can be treated," says
"The most common fungal species that may cause ringworm in dogs
and cats are Microsporum canis. If you suspect that your pet has
ringworm, a veterinarian will be able to determine if that is the
case or not by examining the animal under special lighting wherein
the fungus glows," explains Russell.
If a pet is diagnosed with ringworm it is best to take steps to
disinfect objects that the animal has been in contact with, using
chemicals like chlorine diluted in water.
It is important to bring your pet, especially young pets, in for
their vaccinations and checkups to ensure that diseases such as
ringworm are not causing any problems.
ABOUT PET TALK
*Top photo: Veterinarian checking a cat's ear for
ringworms under UV light. Bottom photo: Cat with a ringworm lesion
on top of it's left eye.
Texas A&M University, College Station, Texas 77843
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