Ringworm derives its name from the reddish, circular lesions that are very visible whenever a ringworm infection is present on human skin. However, the infection has nothing at all to do with the presence of worms and the name was given because of the elevated and rounded shape that the infection usually has.
Ringworm is a fungus that is spread very easily from any skin-to-skin contact with an infected individual. And it is just as easy to catch a ringworm infection from a pet or domestic animal as it is from another human. Dermatophytosis is the medical term for "fungal infection of the skin, hair or claws". All three of these substances are living tissues which is what a fungal agent needs to feed and stay alive. Although, some particularly stubborn forms of dermatophytes can live in the soil, some are most suited to attack humans and others are perfectly adapted to live off of an animal.
Ringworm infections found in animals are also much more difficult to detect because of all of the fur and/or hair. This infection is also considered a "zoonotic disease" since it can spread from animal to animal and also animal to human. There are no known cases of humans spreading a ringworm infection to a pet however. As mentioned above, ringworm is spread by contact with infected animals and by contacting any objects that the infected animal has touched with the infected area of it's body. This includes things such as a bed, brushes, grooming equipment, saddles, leashes, furniture, rugs or toys.
However, it is important to know that not every infected animal will spread the infection if any contact with a human being is made. The fungal agents still need to be alive and thriving in order for the infection to be considered highly contagious. If the infection has already begun to subside, it is far less likely that it will be spread through casual contact.
Young kids, older people and those with a compromised immune system make up the most high risk category of individuals. Just like with nail fungus infections, the weaker the immune system, the easier it is for a infection to find it's way in and become entrenched. This is all the more reason to do everything within your power to strengthen your immune system through a proper diet and good hygiene habits.
In animals, the classic ringworm lesions are patchy areas of hair loss and scaliness usually with minimal inflammation. However, contrary to how the infection feels on human skin, it is not usually itchy to the point where the animal will continually dig at it. This of course adds to the difficulty of noticing a ringworm infection in a pet since they are generally not irritated by it as much as a human is.
Ringworm is best diagnosed by doing a fungal culture -- adding some hair and skin scraping material to a tube of growth media (culture) and seeing what grows on it. But unfortunately, this is not a test that most people can perform at their house and getting results will often take up to two weeks.
A quick "in office" test is called the "Wood's Lamp Test". This is done by using an ultraviolet light in a dark room to see if the affected area will fluoresce to a yellow-green. However, this test is not always reliable since not all fungal agents will fluoresce while some dander and fur may. It is for this reason that the best testing method is a full fungal culture performed by a licensed veterinarian.
The most effective forms of ringworm treatment (provided the infection hasn't become to deeply entrenched) are usually creams or lotions with anti-fungal properties. In most cases, a reputable topical cream will be sufficient for full elimination of the infection. Shaving the hair around the infected areas on an entrenched infections, your veterinarian could prescribe oral anti-fungal medications in addition to the topical treatments.
Lastly, here are a couple of tips, in case your pet does develop a ringworm infection, to keep the infection from spreading to humans:
- Confine contaminated pets to one room. The fewer places that your pet touches, the less likely the infection will spread.
- Vacuum the areas that your pet often visits when inside and take care to dispose of vacuum bags immediately afterwards.
- Wash all bedding and toys that your pet regularly uses. In the case of something inexpensive, you may want to consider throwing it out.
- Wash applicable surfaces and high contact zones with a reputable ringworm treatment.