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Spore wars

Conquering feline ringworm infections

From Animal Sheltering magazine November/December 2014

The Fungus Fighters at Austin Pets Alive! do all they can to ensure their cats get the treatment they need—and the cats do all they can to escape dip treatment!

Brittany Dell’Aglio Mitchell’s voice cracks when she talks about the 40 traumatized cats abandoned in a trailer. Another local group, Thundering Paws, rescued and placed most of the cats in April 2013, but contacted Austin Pets Alive! (APA) to help 12 cats who were covered in ringworm, a fungal infection spread through spores.

Dell’Aglio Mitchell, manager of Dazey’s Ringworm Ward at APA in Austin, Texas, says that although ringworm is very treatable, cats in shelters are often euthanized because the infection is contagious to animals and people. Treatment is lengthy, and the cats need to be isolated from the general cat population. But she’s never had an APA ringworm-treated cat not recover.

APA created the ringworm ward in 2010 to treat euthanasia-listed ringworm cats it pulled from Austin Animal Center. In 2001, the ward was moved to Town Lake Animal Center—the city’s former stray hold facility—and APA’s capacity to care for ringworm cats jumped from a dozen cats to 40.

According to Dell’Aglio Mitchell, kittens and older senior cats are more susceptible to ringworm because their immune systems aren’t prepared to fight off the infection, which presents as round, crusty areas of hair loss or thin, dry and unthrifty-looking hair. Suspects are examined and screened for ringworm with a Wood’s lamp (which uses ultraviolet light to detect hairs that are infected with Microsporum fungi) in APA’s clinic; cats with severe upper respiratory infections are included in the screening, since their taxed immune systems increase their susceptibility. If the exam is positive, the cat goes to the ward. Siblings of a positive cat are considered exposed, and they all stay together in a double-sided cage in the ward for a minimum seven-day quarantine period.

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Keeping litters together decreases the kittens’ stress levels, which helps them clear ringworm faster. The double-sided cages further reduce stress by providing adequate space and allowing kittens to remain in one side of the cage while the other side is cleaned.

Once the quarantine period is completed, litters may be combined, depending on their level of infection and stage of treatment, in one of four cage-free enclosures. There, they can play with paper bags and rings cut from paper towel rolls, and hide in and perch on cardboard boxes, which can all be discarded later. To provide additional enrichment, Dell’Aglio Mitchell designed and built easy-to-clean cat trees using PVC pipes and vinyl tarps.

Volunteers come in multiple times a week to clean, scoop litter and medicate and socialize the kittens. Some people wear full scrubs and rubber gloves; others wear jeans and a T-shirt. “It’s each person’s comfort level with the exposure,” says Dell’Aglio Mitchell. Ringworm laundry is done in a stand-alone building, and on the day that staff and volunteers work in the ward, they don’t work in any other part of the shelter.

Volunteer Debra Leftwich wanted to put the “fun” in fungus. She and three other volunteers are the Fungus Fighters. “I love being a part of this group!” Leftwich says. “I love seeing an end to all our work—kitties clearing and moving on to their forever homes.”

The Fungus Fighters lime sulphur dip all kittens for four weeks, on Tuesdays and Fridays, and also scrub the enclosures and cages, and replace everything in them before the dipped kittens return.

Ringworm-positive cats who are otherwise healthy, weigh at least 2 pounds and are at least 2 months old also get an antifungal called Terbinafine orally once a day for two weeks. Depending on subsequent exam results, Terbinafine may be continued for longer. The cost to treat a cat with ringworm is $75-$100.

Whenever possible, and especially if a cat isn’t responding well to treatment in the ward, cats go into the lower-stress environment of a foster home. Fear may keep some people from fostering cats with ringworm, but many of the ward’s amazing foster families return one ringworm-free litter and come back the next day for another litter to clear of ringworm.

Once they’re ringworm-free, kittens go to the adoption floor. Adoption counselors review the kitten’s medical record line by line with potential adopters for whom ringworm doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. Last year, 92 cats were adopted directly from the ward and continued their treatment at home.

As of July 2014, 500 ringworm cats had gone through the ward and been adopted. And those 12 trailer cats with ringworm? “They ended up being just the sweetest, most loving, most amazing cats that we’ve ever had,” Dell’Aglio Mitchell says, “and were all adopted into loving homes.”

About the Author

Nancy Peterson is the former Community Cats Program Manager for the Humane Society of the United States.