It’s an inevitable fact of animal shelter life: sooner or later ringworm’s coming to town. Every shelter deals with it and more than once. It infiltrated the APCSM last spring and then just this past Monday it reared it’s ugly head again. Yuk. So what is it? How do we contract, contain, and treat it at the shelter? What does it mean going forward. Strap in ladies and gentlemen because this is The Ringworm Post!
First things first: what is ringworm? Well, it’s not a worm for one thing; in fact there are no worms involved at all. It’s a fungus that grows on the skin and presents as a rash that looks like a worm curled into a ring under the skin, hence the name. For perspective think athlete’s foot, that’s a fungus too. It doesn’t present immediately but can incubate for 7-21 days before the distinctive rash develops along with skin flaking and hair/fur loss on the affected area. Most often we see it present on the head and ears of an animal and we are ALWAYS on the lookout for it because it’s highly contagious. If we even suspect a cat may have “the worm” we segregate it until we’re sure one way or the other.
The shelter takes a number of precautions to keep everyone healthy. First, we clean every day! That means each individual cage is cleaned with a special cleaning solution, all food and water dishes are sanitized every day, all laundry goes through a bleach cycle, toys too. Floors are scrubbed and mopped with a bleach solution and a special cleaning product called Kennel-Sol. In fact, while the shelter doesn’t open to the public until noon or 1pm staff is here at 8am. We need that 4-5 hours just to clean to our standards each day.
The next thing we do is keep both ourselves and the public clean between “interactions.” If you’ve been to the APCSM you’ll have seen hand sanitizer everywhere. That’s because every time we touch an animal we sanitize. If we pet a cat we sanitize immediately after. If we hold a guinea pig, we sanitize. If we touch a dog, we sanitize. This not only keeps us safe but it also prevents the spread of anything that might be on one animal to any other. So if we’re doing all this cleaning, sanitizing, and taking all of these preventative measures, how do we get ringworm at all?
Animals can contract ringworm in a number of ways. The spores are incredible hardy outside and can survive for up to a year without a host. They can live in the soil as well as on bedding, brushes, furniture, rugs, etc. It often enters a shelter on a cat (simply because we take in more stray cats that have been out in the elements than dogs, who are usually surrendered by owners) and it’s extremely contagious so it can spread like wildfire once it gets in. It can actually spread as easily as hair follicles falling off the cat during the shedding process and coming in contact with another cat. Here are some other ways it happens:
If infected kitty is in a kennel with another cat underneath and kitty sheds that fur can spread the disease on the cat underneath.
If any staff member or volunteer doesn’t sanitize after touching infected kitty whatever animal the human touches next is exposed.
At some point during shelter hours if a potential adopter pets infected kitty and then without sanitizing their hands in between pets another one then that animal is exposed.
If someone plays with infected kitty with a toy and then puts that toy back in the toy bin instead of the laundry pile for bleaching the spores can get on anything the toy touches and then all the cats that play with that toy are exposed.
In 24 hours ringworm can spread from that one infected kitty to the whole cat room. So once we find it we take serious measures to stop it.
When we found the first case of ringworm this time it was actually due to staff being extra cautious. A cat was surrendered with what a veterinarian had told the owner was a flea allergy. Staff accepted the cat based on the diagnosis but kept the cat in the evaluation area and ran a ringworm check just in case. When the test came back positive we immediately quarantined the cat but it was already too late. One of the cats that had been in a cage in proximity to our patient zero went onto the adoption floor and when we checked, he showed symptoms. It had officially entered the cat room on Monday afternoon, less than 72 hours after we accepted the infected cat. We closed the shelter the following day and began sterilization and treatment procedures for every single cat in the shelter.
Treatment for ringworm in the shelter looks like a cross between the TV show ER and Holi, the Indian festival of colors. Staff don full sterilization gear and dip every cat in a lyme-sulfur solution that not only kills ringworm but temporarily dyes the cat yellowish orange. As you can imagine, the cats are not consulted about this. To keep moral up we turn on “the tunes” which this time around alternated between early Christmas music and classic rock. The cat room is completely sterilized and any furniture that can’t be bleached is tossed.
If you’ve gotten this far you might have a couple of questions. FAQ’s we encounter during a ringworm outbreak include:
Is it contagious to humans?
Yup. That’s why we have hand sanitizer everywhere and ask the public not to stick their fingers through the cages. We don’t think any humans who visited us on Sunday would have contracted it but just in case you can see what symptoms on a human look like here.
I adopted an animal this past weekend. Is it infected?
We caught this case very quickly and we think we have it well contained. Remember, the patient zero cat never went onto the adoption floor. What we’ve done though is sent out an email to everyone who adopted a cat this past weekend with symptoms to look for and what to do if they think they see ringworm on their cat.
When can I adopt/surrender/visit a cat?
We’re not going to open for cat adoptions or surrenders or adoptions until we’re sure it’s gone. We’re sure it’s contained right now so we will be adopting and taking dogs and small animals but for cats be prepared to go to another shelter or wait for at least 2 weeks.
What’s happening to the cats?
As we started treatment we took the cats that we think had been exposed to ringworm and quarantined them. They will be treated and made available for adoption once they are well. We are also treating every cat in residence with the lyme-sulfur dip to be absolutely safe. If you would like to help sponsor the care of a ringworm affected cat please consider donating to our Life Is Precious Fund.
How can I help?
We’ve created a “Ringworm Revenge” wish list in Amazon with everything from bleach to sterile gowns. If you can help us out there we’d really appreciate it. We also need towels and flat sheets because we had to toss so many. Finally, we also need your help educating people so that everyone understands how seriously we take cleanliness at the APCSM and the welfare of our animals, and managing a ringworm outbreak.
Thanks for bearing with us as we treat the animals. If you have any other questions please feel free to call the shelter. We are always happy to talk.