Ringworm isn’t aptly named. In fact, it’s not a worm at all. Also called dermatophytosis, ringworm is actually a fungus that veterinarians typically see in puppies, kittens and sometimes older immune-compromised animals.
Consisting of two different species, Microsporum and Trichophyton, ringworm can either present as a single lesion or can spread and become either multiple focal lesions or a generalized dermatitis with severe hair loss and secondary bacterial infections. Typically, animals with generalized ringworm have a compromised immune system; I generally do not vaccinate puppies or kittens with ringworm, in order to avoid additional immune system stress.
The disease is highly contagious between animals and may even be transmitted between infected animals and their people. However, be aware that most cases of human ringworm are not caused by exposure to their animals, but rather to other humans, especially in the case of young school-aged children.
How ringworm manifests
Clinical signs in animals include hair loss, usually in a circular or “ring-shaped” pattern, mild itching and sometimes tiny scabs. However, ringworm can look like any skin disease early on, and the often-used Woods lamp ultraviolet light test may be negative. Cultures can take two to three weeks to grow, so if I am suspicious, I always begin some form of treatment before the lab results are back. I always warn people of the possible contagion to humans if the animal has demonstrable ringworm lesions. It is important to thoroughly wash your hands and any other body part that has come in contact with an animal with ringworm. Common soap and water is just fine, since the ringworm must have prolonged contact with the skin in order to invade.
In animals, the lesions most commonly present about the face, head, ears and paws (as the animal rubs the head lesions and transfers the disease). Typically, only one or two lesions are present, so local topical therapy is most commonly used.
Treatment needs to be thorough
Conventional therapy utilizes medicated shampoos (e.g. malacetic acid), topical antifungals (such as miconazole) and in severe cases, oral antifungal medications, usually griesiofulvin.
Natural therapies can be used in conjunction with medical therapies and are designed to reduce inflammation and fungus growth. However, they are rarely effective by themselves in most patients with severe, generalized infection.
• Herbal shampoos containing calendula and goldenseal may be helpful.
• A natural diet (or upgrading to a “holistic” or “organic” pet food) is also important.
• Herbs to support the immune system and fight infection need to be added – Western examples are dandelion, Echinacea, turmeric and yellow dock to name a few.
• Homeopathic remedies may include Bacillinum, Berberis, Sepia and Tellurium. The choice of remedy must rest with the practitioner’s knowledge of the Materia Medica.
• With Chinese herbal remedies, immune support can be accomplished with Astragalus and/or Reishi mushroom (Ganoderma). TCVM treatments should be used according to presenting signs. For example, low grade lesions may respond to Blood tonifying formulas, which can be viewed as enhancing the local immunity of the skin. Excessive purulent lesions often respond to Damp Heat formulas.
• Eucalyptus oil exhibits antifungal activity against ringworm species. However, it is potentially quite toxic if ingested, which limits its use in animals, especially cats. The same goes for essential oils.
Treatment of topical lesions usually takes three to four weeks, or until the lesion is gone. Generalized ringworm can be difficult to control and takes much longer. Shelter animals or feral cats are often infected due to the close proximity of the animals and rapid contagion. If a dog or cat in a multi-animal household is confirmed with ringworm, then we recommend isolation of the individual, if possible, and routine bathing with anti-fungal shampoos for the other animals. If any of the other animals in the house have concurrent diseases or are immune compromised, we will start them on herbal immune stimulants as well.
It might be nasty and stubborn, but ringworm can be conquered. Knowing what to look for, and bringing any unusual skin lesions to your veterinarian’s attention as soon as possible can help ensure an effective and speedy recovery.