Most people who work with animals know about worms. They know that tapeworms look like rice, and roundworms look like spaghetti. (Sorry for the food analogy, but food seems to be a universal language everybody can relate to.)

But if we were going to compare ringworm to a food, it would be more like a mushroom. That’s because ringworm isn’t a worm at all — it’s a fungus. (Don’t worry, it’s not the same type of fungus responsible the mushrooms on your pizza.)

Colleen Dougherty

Colleen Dougherty

The disease was erroneously named because of the way it appears on people — circular red lesions with a ring of scaly skin around the edges that someone thought resembled a worm. On animals, it tends to look more like irregular patches of scaly, gray or pink skin.

Ringworm is actually a type of skin infection caused by a group of fungi called dermatophytes — tiny plants that feed on hair and dead skin cells. Infections caused by these fungi, like ringworm, tend to take hold in animals or humans who are very young, very old, weak, malnourished, extremely stressed or who have compromised immune systems.

Believe it or not, the type of dermatophyte that causes 70-90 percent of the ringworm cases in dogs and cats (called microsporum) can also be responsible for something many humans are familiar with called “tinea pedis” or athlete’s foot. Yep, it’s the same thing.

The word “ringworm” has come to spark panic in people, as if the plague has returned. While I don’t know anyone who ever panicked over athlete’s foot, I have seen staff in animal shelters and pet owners as well go into a panic over it, mostly because it’s contagious and can take weeks or months to treat.

At one small shelter where I worked, we decided to educate ourselves about it. After we understood it better, we found we could respond rather than react. We learned how to treat affected animals (lime sulphur dip is still my fav, even though it smells bad.) We learned how to clean the environment using a detailed protocol and special cleaning products, many of which are available commercially, including a 32:1 water-bleach solution. At home, I use a product called Accel to clean, and keep athlete’s foot cream on hand just in case.

Ringworm is annoying, no argument. It can be contagious, and it takes time, patience and diligence to get rid of — just ask anyone who’s had athlete’s foot. But it’s not fatal (like the plague,) and it’s just heartbreaking to see cats and dogs returned to shelters because of it.

Can you imagine a mother returning her teenage son to the hospital where he was born and telling the staff, “I don’t want him anymore — he’s got athlete’s foot — you have to take him back.”

Sadly, shelters that lack understanding of the disease or the resources to treat often still euthanize affected animals.

But knowledge is power, I believe, so now you know a little more about ringworm. If you’d like to know more, the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine has a good website (uwsheltermedicine.com/library/guidebooks/ringworm.)

And if you’re not sure if you or your pets have ringworm (other ailments can cause similar skin problems,) doctors and vets can help diagnose it for you.

As always, thanks for reading and be well!

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