Ringworm at the OSPCA

Never a dull moment...

This morning the Toronto Star published an article about the intended euthanasia of 350 animals at a humane society in Newmarket due to an ongoing ringworm outbreak.  This was quickly followed by another article about the same event that gave a few more details, including some comments from the OSPCA chief executive officer Kate MacDonald, who confirmed that the euthanasias had begun.  A "very aggressive strain" of ringworm and "human error" (related to a breakdown in protocols) are currently being blamed for this morning's actions.  A lot of people are (understandably) very upset.  No one ever wants to see an infectious disease outbreak come to something like this.

I’m hesitant to comment too much at this stage, because we still don’t have all the facts - apparently even the duration of the outbreak is unknown.  No one has said if all 350 animals are infected (or what percentage of them are), nor how many other animals are present at the shelter. We also don’t know what’s already been tried in terms of controlling the outbreak.

A few facts about ringworm (dermatophytosis) that people need to remember:

  • Ringworm is a skin infection that can be caused by several species of fungi.  It is not a "worm" at all.  It is also very easily transmitted by direct or indirect contact with infected animals - their fur, their cages, their blankets, or anything else that may be contaminated with infected skin cells or hair.  Such infectious material can even be spread over short distances (e.g. room to room) in dust that is stirred up into the air.
  • Ringworm is transmissible to people, so with a large outbreak there are also issues with staff safety, and concerns with adopting out infected animals.  For most people ringworm infection may cause itchy, uncomfortable skin lesions, but for higher-risk people (e.g. very young children, the elderly or immunosuppressed individuals) the infection can be much more serious.
  • There are also a lot of animals (particularly cats) that carry ringworm without showing any signs of infection. If the Newmarket shelter has 350 animals with clinical signs of ringworm (a detail about which we have no information right now), that’s pretty bad, but even the animals who don't appear to be infected may be carrying the fungus and could spread it to others.
  • Crowding, close contact and warm, humid environments are all factors that increase the risk of ringworm transmission. These are also all factors that are very hard to control in a crowded animal shelter.
  • Ringworm is treatable, but it is not cheap or easy. Animals typically require systemic therapy (usually oral medication, which can be very expensive particularly in large dogs) as well as whole-body topical therapy (e.g. dips, shampoos, sprays), and they need to be treated for several weeks. Decontamination of the environment at the same time is critical to prevent reinfection.

Cleaning up a ringworm outbreak at a shelter with at least 350 animals is no small undertaking.  The second article in the Star also describes personnel at the shelter this morning wearing "white hazardous material suits, latex gloves and plastic covers over their shoes", which would be considered reasonable precautions for entering a highly contaminated environment.

I'm sure we'll hear more about this in the days to come, and hopefully that will include more details about why the mass euthanasia was deemed necessary by the OSPCA.

For more more information about ringworm, download the information sheet from the Worms & Germs Resources page, or check out our archives.

Photo source: yorkregion.ontariospca.ca via www.thestar.com

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Comments (1) Read through and enter the discussion with the form at the end
John Prescott - May 11, 2010 8:21 PM

Like Maureen Anderson, I hesitate to comment without knowing enough of the facts, but perhaps can make a few points for consideration.
These serious ringworm problems in humane societies occur periodically, and represent public health problems because of the high contagiousness of animal ringworm, and its ability to spread quickly (eg after a child's "sleepover" where everyone handled the new kitten). However they often represent long term problems at the humane society (aged buildings, inadequate funds, "no euthanasia policy" so overcrowding, no infection control protocols, inadequate volunteer or staff training). The response to a serious ringworm problem might be better to use it as a "teachable moment" (or "don't waste a good crisis" as someone said cynically recently) and use it as the opportunity to address the problems. Euthanizing 350 likely healthy animals as an infection control procedure seems draconian and likely to destroy goodwill in the community for a generation, especially since ringworm is treatable with baths, pills or vaccines. It might be better to turn this into an opportunity to address what are likely long-term issues, and keep the goodwill of supporters locally and at a distance.

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