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Monday, December 01, 2008

Pet Health: Symptoms and Treatment of Ringworm

Even the best kept pets pick up nasty ailments every now and then. Ringworm is not a serious threat to health but it is unpleasant, unsightly, highly contagious and can be passed to humans.

What is ringworm?
Ringworm is not a worm, but a fungus, of a kind known as a dermatophyte. There are many species, but in the vast majority of cases the culprit is Microsporum canis, that can affect dogs, cats and humans. The dermatophytes reproduce by means of spores that can remain viable for well over a year. Contact with infected animals, contaminated soil or with some species of dermatophyte, wild rodents, are the most common causes.

The symptoms:
The typical presentation of ringworm is a bald patch with a circular area of skin inflammation that may be scaly or crusty. The fungus attacks the hair in such a way that the patch may look as if it has been closely shaved. It tends to heal from the inside, resulting in the characteristic ‘ring’: a more inflamed exterior surrounding a central area where healing is taking place. There are however many manifestations and some animals can display very few symptoms. It may also resemble other skin diseases, including allergies, and is best diagnosed by a vet. Though ringworm can eventually clear up on its own, because of its contagiousness and the threat to other animals and people, it should be taken seriously. It may sometimes be an indication of a suppressed immune system.

The diagnosis:
Because it may manifest in different guises and resembles other conditions, ringworm can only be diagnosed by testing, Shining a special light on the infected areas may show fluorescence, but not all species produce the characteristic green glow and this method is not always conclusive. Microscopic examination can reveal spores and other material, but there is room for error in this method too. Culturing material from samples of hair is the most reliable method but takes time.

Treating ringworm consists of decontaminating the environment, oral medications and topical applications. Bedding, toys, brushes and bowls need to be disinfected or burned. Fleas or mites must be vigorously dealt with. Vacuuming will help pick up spores. The approved tablets (griseofulvin) can have side effects such as nausea and diarrhoea and cannot be used in sick or pregnant animals (though expensive alternatives are available). Simply applying cream is not usually effective and animals will need to be shampooed weekly with special antifungal shampoo to ensure that spores are eliminated from the whole coat. This can be especially difficult with cats, who are notoriously averse to bathing.

Because of contagion, it’s best to consult your vet without delay if you think your animal is infected. Many animals have a degree of resistance, but children in particular may not and this is not something anyone should risk catching. On the plus side, it is not a painful condition unless it becomes secondarily infected, but it isn’t pretty and may take some effort to eliminate.

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