Don't always blame the dog

As someone who works with zoonotic diseases, I often find myself fighting battles on both sides of the issue. One side is trying to increase awareness about zoonotic diseases (i.e. those caused by microorganisms that are transmitted between animals and humans) and getting people to think about the potential role of animals in human infection. However, I often also have to deal with trying to keep things in perspective, and prevent people from over-reacting to disease risks. Part of this is helping people understand that disease transmission is typically a two-way street. While animal-to-human transmission is usually the greatest concern, human-to-animal transmission of a variety of bugs also occurs, and this can cause problems for the animals, and for people who subsequently have contact with those animals.

A recent paper in the journal Mycoses (Van Rooij et al 2013) highlights one such scenario. The paper describes ringworm in a dog that was associated with the fungus Trichophyton rubrum, which is not the typical ringworm species (Microsporum canis) that we find in dogs. Trichophyton rubrum is a common cause of infection in people, particularly tinea pedis (athlete’s foot) and onychomycosis (fungal infection of finger and toe nails). The authors did something that’s often lacking in reports of animal-human transmission: they actually tested both the person and the pet. Here, they found that the owner was a carrier of this fungus. They were able to isolate the fungus from his skin and determined that he likely had an asymptomatic infection that was subsequently transmitted to his dog. (He’d previously had untreated and self-resolving athlete’s foot, and presumably remained a carrier after that). Since this ringworm species is predominantly found in humans, it’s a reasonable assumption that it started with the person and the problem was only identified when the dog developed disease. In this case, the dog was old and had been treated with corticosteroids, both of which probably affected it’s immune system and made it more susceptible to this uncommon cause of canine disease.

It’s important to remember that while zoonoses are important, pathogens go both ways.

In the end, we’re all animals.


Guelph Humane Society reopens

The Guelph Humane Society has re-opened after a temporary closure to manage a potential ringworm outbreak. The shelter took an aggressive, proactive approach to the issue, including testing and treatment of all animals and thorough disinfection of the facility.

Looking back on a proactive outbreak response like this one, it's always hard to say if a bad outbreak didn't develop because it wasn't going to, or because of the early aggressive response (i.e. did it get better because of what they did or despite what they did). However, if you sit back and wait (or remain in denial), you can be sure that it's much more likely that badness will develop.

Once things have settled down, people sometimes complain that an aggressive response was unnecessary because nothing bad happened, but they're often the same people that complain that not enough was done when an major outbreak occurs. An ongoing challenge in infection control is fighting complacency, since successful infection prevention and control programs sometimes lead to people forgetting about the bad things that can happen and why such programs are in place to begin with. We should applaud facilities that "suck it up" and accept the negative PR, time and financial consequences of an appropriate response in order to protect the health and welfare of the animals for which they care and all the people (employees and public) who have contact with them.

Newmarket OSPCA in the news...again

On my way to Beth's soccer practice yesterday, I heard a blurb on the radio about how Frank Klees, MPP (Member of Provincial Parliament) told the legislature that the Newmarket OSPCA was going to euthanize all their animals because of a ringworm outbreak, and that three employees had been fired because they objected to the number of euthanasias. His statement that "We have a repeat now, at the same shelter, of what took place nearly a year and a half ago" was pretty concerning, given the severity of the earlier "ringworm" debacle. Klees, the veteran PC party MPP, has been a vocal critic of the OSPCA in the past.

Later that night, I found a little more information, which was mainly centred around complaints about the number of animals being euthanized for various reasons, and a subsequent statement by the OSPCA that there was no outbreak.

Now, it appears that a protest is being planned for today (Friday), although it's not really clear to me what they are protesting. Maybe there's more to it than is being reported and an outbreak or cull is actually underway. However, in the absence of that, their protest is better directed at the state of the animal population rather than OSPCA euthanasias.

While I don't have a lot of confidence in Newmarket OSPCA management at this point, it's hard to blame the them for euthanizing a lot of animals. It's a function of supply and demand, as well as limited capacity.

North America wide, the euthanasia rate for cats entering shelters is about 50%. That's a staggering number, but it's not usually the fault of the shelter system - it's because of the massive overpopulation of cats. When twice as many cats come in as there are available homes, something has to give. You can either build new shelters every year (obviously unrealistic), pack current shelters to the ceiling with cats crammed into crates in every corner (a perfect situation for a large outbreak and hardly fair to the cats) or euthanize many and focus efforts and resources on the most adoptable animals. As much as the "no-kill" concept has market appeal, it's completely unrealistic for cats at this time because of the simple fact that millions of new cats are born every year with no hopes for a home. A small shelter can run as a no-kill shelter, but that just means that they limit their admissions and/or don't accept cats with limited adoption potential. A large shelter like Newmarket that takes whatever cats arrive will euthanize many of them, even without an outbreak going on. In fact, to do things right, a large shelter has to euthanize lots of cats to allow them to properly care for and find homes for other cats. Sad but true.

So, while euthanasia is obviously undesirable and it gets people worked up, yelling at the OSPCA doesn't do anything. They're not going to stop euthanizing cats, because they can't. Efforts are better spent helping deliver care to stray animals and preventing the cat population from expanding.

One of the most important things anyone can do to help the problem is make sure to (as Bob Barker used to say) have your pet spayed or neutered (and pass the message along to those you know as well!).

Another shelter outbreak...a different response

'Tis the season for ringworm, I guess.

The Guelph Humane Society has closed to visitors, and adoptions have been suspended in response to concerns about the potential for a ringworm outbreak. Implementing a proactive response, all animals are being tested for ringworm and all cats are being treated. While the scope of the problem isn't yet clear (and hopefully it's minimal), this type of response is the optimal approach because waiting to "see what happens" and waiting for culture results (which can take a long time) before deciding to take aggressive measures results is a much greater chance of things getting out of hand.

In an outbreak like this, the first week or so is critical. Introduction of an animal that's carrying ringworm is hard to prevent, as is limited transmission within a shelter (even with good routine infection control practices) from that first case. That's the non-preventable component of shelter diseases. However, it's the 2nd generation of transmission (transmission of ringworm from that initial animal or group of animals to the broader population) that leads to things getting out of control. That's the preventable fraction of infections, on which we can have the biggest impact. It's during this early phase where intervention is critical  It's always better to have an overly aggressive response and simply tone it down after a few days, than to have an inadequate response that lets things spiral out of control.

More information about ringworm can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources - Pets page.

KW shelter ringworm outbreak continues

As expected, the KW humane society ringworm outbreak has gone from "we'll be open in a couple days" to "it may take months to clear it up."

The scope of the outbreak isn't really clear from press reports, but "a couple" of other animals now have signs of the skin disease. Investigation of the timing and likely sources of exposure of new cases is crucial. They may just be animals that were infected early, before the problem was recognized (the best case scenario) but investigating these "new" cases is very important because if these animals were exposed after the outbreak was identified, then there are problems with containment.

Shelter personnel have declared that they aren't planning on euthanizing more animals, but the shelter remains closed for adoptions. Stray animals will continue to be accepted. This creates a tricky situation where new animals (e.g. fuel for the fire, if things aren't under control) come in and can actually propagate the outbreak. It also creates overcrowding issues since the shelter was probably pretty full to start with, and continuing admissions with no adoptions can't be maintained for long. The shelter is looking at renting units in which to put animals - this is a relatively common approach for creating more contained spaces, and one that can be useful if good infection control practices are in place (although I've seen too many outbreaks where the offending pathogen quickly makes its way into the new units). Clear policies, sound training, careful supervision, exquisite planning and good communication are critical for making a situation like that work.

While the shelter has gone from an unrealistically optimistic time frame to a warning about long-term efforts, as with most things in life, the middle ground is usually the most accurate. Ringworm outbreaks can't be declared over in a few days (it's possible to contain it in a short period of time, but not declare an outbreak over). A few days isn't even enough time to get culture results back to figure out exactly what's happening. Testing, isolation, cohorting, mass treatment, evaluation of training, evaluation of infection control practices, and similar measures are needed, but if done right, an outbreak can be contained in a reasonably short period of time. Given the need to repeatedly treat all animals (affected animals are being bathed every three days with a medicated solution) and the time lag for ringworm culture, it's going to take at least a few weeks, but let's hope this outbreak ultimately gets measured in weeks rather than months.

KW Humane Society outbreak update

The latest info on the ringworm outbreak at the KW Human society come from the Waterloo Record (unfortunately there's still no information on the Humane Society's own website...).

The facility was closed to the public on August 4th because three cats and one dog were showing unspecified signs of ringworm.

Samples were collected for testing, but they decided to euthanize the 4 animals.

"You’re kind of under the gun to decide what you want to do,” said their operations manager. I can certainly empathize. It's not easy to deal with an outbreak. However, from my standpoint, if you feel like you're under the gun in that kind of situation, you're likely to make (or to have already made) mistakes. If you're managing the situation well, getting advice and following standard practices, you may be stressed, exhausted, humbled and concerned, but you shouldn't feel "under the gun." Maybe euthanasia was warranted here, but with a small number of infected animals, the ability to potentially isolate and treat them, and lots of information about how to manage ringworm to avoid further spread, it's important to avoid a panic response that leads to premature euthanasia decisions.

The three cats that were euthanized apparently did not have ringworm, but the shelter is "certain" (not sure how) that the dog had ringworm. Sudden onset of skin lesions in dogs and cats at the same time is certainly suggestive of ringworm, and if the dog was truly infected, it's hard to believe the cats were not (especially since cats are most often affected in ringworm outbreaks compared to dogs). So I wouldn't be too quick to rule out ringworm in the cats. Ringworm culture can take a couple of weeks, so it's not clear to me whether this interpretation is based on culture results or not. 

"With the results being better than expected, the humane society will not have to move larger numbers of possibly infected animals to a different facility — the usual procedure in an outbreak." While I can't say too much from a distance, I can say that moving animals to another facility is certainly not a typical outbreak response measure. It's an effective outbreak propagation measure, since it can easily disseminate ringworm to other places, so it's good to hear that they are not planning on moving animals. It's much better to manage things well at one site than to have to manage things at multiple sites.

They state that "the situation now appears to be under control." Hopefully that's true, but it's way too early to say. You can't declare an outbreak over a few days after you declare that it started. There hasn't even been enough time for any animal or environmental ringworm culture results to come back. Closing, testing, treating all exposed animals and thorough cleaning and disinfecting of the environment can be a great start, but trying to say "we won" too early often leads to inadequate response and continuation of the outbreak.

"We’re keeping our fingers crossed and hoping that everything comes back negative so we can be open for business sometime next week" Again, I'm not involved and I'm working with sparse information, but this seems to be way too early to reopen the shelter. You need to make sure things are really under control before you get out of "outbreak mode" and before you can be "open for business" again. That's especially true with a disease like ringworm that is highly transmissible and can be spread to people. Too often, a small outbreak is identified and declared over prematurely, only to be followed by a big mess in short order. Let's hope that's not the case here.

Image: Photo of a dermatophyte-positive culture specimen, which can take two weeks or longer to grow.

Local shelter ringworm outbreak

A short distance down the road from here, the Kitchener-Waterloo Humane Society has been quarantined because of an apparent ringworm outbreak. There's no information on the facility's website and information in the press has been pretty vague (both concerning aspects), but it sounds like a ringworm outbreak. Adoptions have been ceased and the Humane Society will apparently "reassess its safety protocols by the end of the week.The outbreak appears to have been going on since at least last week, so hopefully they're getting on this and have a strong outbreak investigation and control plan in place.

I haven't been involved in this outbreak so I know nothing more than what is in the press, but ringworm can be a big problem in shelters. It's a controllable disease, but the situation can get completely screwed up with a poor outbreak response. It's also sometimes an overblown problem (or not a true problem at all) in some situations, so it's critical that the outbreak is properly investigated and managed. That's not always the case, and the consequences can be serious.

There are a lot of factors that go into good outbreak management that are hopefully being done at the KW Humane Society. These include:

  • Good communication both internally and externally.
  • Transparency.
  • Sound containment practices.
  • Getting good advice.
  • Actually listening to the good advice (and not bad advice).
  • Taking the time to do it right.
  • Ensuring one is acting on correct information.
  • Spending money where it needs to be spent, be it testing, treatment, personnel or other factors. Trying to save money during an outbreak response often ends up costing much more in the end.

The independent report of the 2010 ringworm debacle at the Newmarket OSPCA should be important reading for any shelter trying to figure out what to do, and what not to do.

Guinea pigs and ringworm

As with most "pocket pets," guinea pigs don’t get a lot of attention in the scientific literature. As a result, we are limited in what we know about certain diseases in this species, and we tend to rely a lot on personal experience, small case studies and extrapolation from other species. It’s not that these sources of information are bad, they’re just not a replacement for larger, more controlled studies.

A recent study in the journal Mycoses (Kraemer et al. 2012) provides a rather comprehensive overview of ringworm (dermatophytosis) in these little fuzzy critters. The authors surveyed 74 owners of guinea pigs with ringworm and veterinarians. Here are some highlights from the results:

  • 97% of ringworm infections were caused by Trichophyton mentagrophytes. Ringworm can be caused by a few different species of fungi, with a different organism, Microsporum canis, being most common in dogs and cats.
  • 43% of the time, a new guinea pig was introduced into the household in the weeks preceding the onset of disease, and around one-third of affected guinea pigs had been in the household for less than 3 months. That’s not too surprising, since new animals are often a prime source of infectious diseases. It shows the importance of ensuring that new pets are examined carefully and are healthy before they are brought into the household. It’s certainly no guarantee that there won’t be problems, since healthy-appearing animals can be shedding various infectious agents, but it helps reduce the risk.
  • Ringworm lesions were most common around the head. Hair loss was the most common sign, with scaling and crusting also common.
  • Signs of ringworm were also present in other guinea pigs in the household in over one-third of cases.
  • Various treatments were used and some animals weren’t specifically treated.  In fact, 7/8 of the guinea pigs that did not receive specific anti-fungal therapy got better. It's known that ringworm can be self-limiting (meaning the animal will get better on its own over time). However, treatment can speed the process up and decrease the likelihood of transmission to other animals or people.
  • In 24% of cases, people in the household also had signs of ringworm, on the head, neck and arms. Children were most commonly involved. That’s not too surprising since kids probably had more contact and closer contact with the animals than their parents.

While not a severe disease, ringworm is a problem because it’s highly transmissible. It can easily and quickly spread between animals, and between animals and people, and elimination of ringworm from a highly contamination household can be a major hassle. Presumably the risk of widespread environmental contamination is less with guinea pigs compared to dogs and cats because of their smaller size and tendency to be kept confined to cages most of the time.

Ringworm should be considered in any guinea pig that develops hair loss or other skin/hair problems. This is particularly true if it’s a new acquisition or if a new guinea pig has been introduced to the household recently.

If ringworm is suspected, a prompt visit to the veterinarian is in order. The guinea pig should be handled sparingly (or ideally, not at all) until the cause of the skin disease is identified. Close attention should be paid to hand hygiene, and even the use of gloves could be considered, although gloves aren’t a cure-all and people sometimes misuse gloves to such an extent that they actually increase the risk of spreading disease.

If a new guinea pig is obtained, it’s ideal to have it examined by a veterinarian before it comes into the household. I’m a realist and realize this is unlikely, but it’s ideal. In lieu of that, it’s important to get a guinea pig from a reputable source, to ensure that other guinea pigs from the same source don’t have skin disease, and to carefully examine the animal for skin lesions before it gets home. It’s also ideal to keep any new guinea pig in its own cage for a couple weeks to act as a quarantine period and allow for identification of any incubating diseases.

If owners of an infected guinea pig develop skin lesions, they should be examined by their physician, and make sure the physician knows they have been in contact with an infected animal.

(click image for source)

New guinea ringworm outbreak

A Kitchener, Ontario family is dealing with a household outbreak of ringworm, likely contracted from a new pet guinea pig. Ringworm is a fungal infection cause by a few different types of fungi. Some ringworm fungi are able to infect both people and animals, and those can be spread in households from direct contact with an infected person or pet. In this case, the Gross family purchased a new guinea pig from a local pet store, and unfortunately, ended up bringing ringworm home as a bonus.

As is common, the new pet was the centre of attention when it got home, and the Gross' three children, ages 8, 5, and 2, had very close and frequent contact with it. The next day, the family noticed an area of hair loss on the guinea pig, at which point they took it back to the store. Ringworm was subsequently diagnosed, though there's no mention of how this was done, nor is there any mention of what actually happened to the little critter afterward.

The big problems started a week later, when a red lesion was seen on their youngest child's back. This was also diagnosed as ringworm, though again there's no mention of how, or whether it was definitively confirmed as ringworm. The newspaper report goes on to say "More spots kept appearing on Matthew’s skin as Gross was given different steroid creams to try and contain the infection." You always need to take media descriptions of medical issues with a grain of salt.  Hopefully, the child was treated with anti-fungal cream, not steroid cream, as the latter not only won't treat ringworm, they may make it worse if used alone. Steroid creams are often prescribed for non-specific skin issues (particularly if the skin is very itchy, which can certainly happen with ringworm), but in a case like this where there was known contact with an animal with ringworm, I have to hope that the physician was treating with an antifungal cream instead of, or in addition to, a steroid cream. 

Anyway, whether despite or because of the treatment, more skin lesions kept appearing on the child. Then skin lesions were found on the family dog, and both the dog and cat ended up being treated for ringworm.  The treatment for dogs and cats is relatively straightforward, but it's still a hassle and can be somewhat expensive, and often takes several weeks.

The family has contacted the pet store about paying for cleaning supplies, air purifiers and veterinary bills, but the company did not respond to the newspaper reporter's inquiries, citing an ongoing investigation. It's hard to say whether the company should be held responsible. It largely depends on the measures they take to reduce the risk that they are selling pets at increased risk of transmitting infectious diseases. There's always a chance of picking up something from a pet, so an infection does not necessarily indicate incompetence or liability. If a store had reasonable practices in place, it's probably the purchaser's responsibility to take proper precautions when they take the pet home, and it's an example of why prompt veterinary examination of new pets is always a good idea. It's rarely done, particularly for species that cost less than the price of a veterinary exam, and you never know whether it would have helped prevent anything in this case, but in many instances it can help identify potential issues and address them before problems occur.

Preventing outbreaks like this can be difficult. Ringworm can be found on animals in the absence of any skin disease, so you can't always tell an animal is infected by looking at it. (However, in this case if a large patch of hair loss was noticed by the owners the day after the guinea pig came home, it's likely that something was evident the day before). Ringworm is spread by direct contact, which is common between pets and kids, especially new pets that often get smothered with attention in the first few days. Good hygiene practices, particularly attention to handwashing, can certainly help, but some degree of risk will remain.

Overall, guinea pigs are relatively low risk for zoonotic diseases, but this report shows that even "low risk" pets can be sources of infection. Fortunately, while controlling ringworm outbreaks can take time and be frustrating, it's not a serious disease and it is controllable.

More information about ringworm can be found on the Worms & Germs Resources page.

Animal shelter outbreaks

Infectious diseases are continuous challenges for animal shelters. Unfortunately, outbreaks are not uncommon. Sometimes they're the result bad luck and the inherent risks involved in bringing together  lots of animals of questionable health status from different sources. However, if you compound these risks with things like inadequate facilities, overcrowding, poor training of personnel, poor adherence to protocols, bad protocols, lack of awareness about infectious diseases and failure to get expert help early in any outbreak, the likelihood of "badness" increases.

A few shelter outbreaks are underway at the moment, and they highlight some of the infectious disease challenges posed by different diseases in animal shelters.

  • The Oakville and Milton Humane Society (in Ontario) is closed because of a ringworm outbreak that's been going on since early September. Ringworm, while of limited health consequences, is an important shelter problem because it's common, highly transmissible, can be hard to control and can infect people. At last report, 22 cats were confirmed or suspected to have ringworm, along with at least four staff members. It's not clear who's coordinating the outbreak response, but hopefully they're getting good advice and they've read the comprehensive report from the Newmarket OSPCA ringworm debacle.
  • 72 kittens were euthanized in the Miami-Dade County Animal Services because of "cat plague," which is a common name for feline panleukopenia. This viral disease is preventable by vaccination, but it's a serious concern in shelters were there are often lots of unvaccinated or inadequately-vaccinated cats and lots of susceptible kittens. In this shelter, all cats with clinical signs consistent with panleukopenia are being euthanized. Euthanasia is always a tough decision, but with a serious disease like this, it's a reasonable response. Outbreaks like this highlight the need for excellent infection control practices to reduce the risk of spread of pathogens like this once they make it into a shelter.
  • Upper respiratory tract infections have resulted in suspension of adoptions at the Bergen County Animal Shelter in New Jersey. News reports are calling it a canine influenza outbreak, and canine flu is definitely on the list of possibilities, but it doesn't sound like it's been confirmed. Respiratory infections are a common cause of problems in animal shelters because some causes (e.g. canine parainfluenza virus, canine influenza virus) are quite transmissible. Canine flu poses extra challenges when it moves into a new area, since few if any dogs have antibodies against the virus and therefore it can spread rapidly. The report also mentions transmission by dogs not showing signs of disease. That's a problem with some infectious agents. For example, with canine flu, dogs tend to be able to shed the virus before they show signs of illness. Therefore, there's a period of a couple of days after infection but before disease where you can have a silent reservoir of infection. That's why quarantine of new admissions is critical, since it gives animals a few days to show signs of diseases they may be brewing at the time of admission. (Unfortunately, it's not easy to find space in which to quarantine an animal in an overcrowded shelter.)

A common denominator in all of these outbreaks is the potential that something could have been done differently to prevent the problem. It's possible (although unlikely) that everything that was done perfectly, however it's a rare outbreak where you can't find multiple areas for improvement. A key aspect of outbreak management is, once the crisis is over, performing an investigation of what really went wrong and why, and taking measures to reduce the chance of it happening again.

Image: Ringworm infection in a cat is not always readily apparent, but in some cases can cause obvious patches of hair loss.

Newmarket OSPCA ringworm "outbreak" investigation report

As many of you know, there was a large ringworm "outbreak" at the Newmarket (Ontario) OSPCA shelter in 2010 that led to a public outcry in response to plans to depopulate the shelter. In the aftermath of the event, an independent investigation was launched, headed by Mr. Patrick LeSage (former Chief Justice of the Ontario Superior Court) and Dr. Alan Meek (former Dean of the Ontario Veterinary College). The investigation involved a comprehensive examination of activities pertaining to the outbreak and shelter operations, in conjunction with relevant experts (disclosure: I was one of those).

The report of the investigation is now available, and covers important aspects such as whether an outbreak was actually present (short answer: no) and whether there were major problems in shelter operation (short answer: yes). Most importantly, it provides a comprehensive set of recommendations to improve the operations of the Newmarket shelter and OSPCA as a whole.

The report, in its entirety, was released today by the OSPCA and is available for download on their website. The report is on the site in multiple files: the main report is listed as "Index" and contains the ~90 page overview and recommendations. The expert reports, which might also be of interest, are tables D1-3, E, F and G.

Different shelter outbreak, different issues

An Indianapolis area shelter recently put out a public call for foster homes to help deal with an outbreak of respiratory tract disease in cats. They were trying to find homes for sick cats, presumably as part of a plan to depopulate the humane society to help control the outbreak. This is what a lot of people have said that the OSPCA should have done in the recent ringworm outbreak in Newmarket, Ontario. But these are two completely different issues.

The main difference is the nature of the infection. Feline upper respiratory tract viruses only infect cats. Therefore, foster homes that don't have cats can take them safely. Ringworm can affect people and other animals. Every household has some individuals that are susceptible to ringworm. Therefore, cats with respiratory tract infections pose no risk to appropriate foster households, while the same can't be said about ringworm. Reportedly, six staff members and two volunteers have contracted ringworm so far in the Newmarket outbreak.

Fostering a cat with viral respiratory tract disease is relatively easy. You just treat it like any cat and watch for signs of worsening disease or secondary infection. Fostering a cat with ringworm is not as easy. You need to keep it isolated to keep it from spreading the infection through contact with people and animals, and to prevent contamination of the household environment. You need to wear proper protective clothing when handling it. You probably need to treat it, such as giving it a bath twice a week and/or oral medication every day. It's not rocket science, but it takes a lot of time and commitment. Importantly, it takes long-term commitment, since you need to do this for weeks or months. You can't get into a situation when foster homes get bored and want to return the animal before it is considered non-infectious.

In all outbreaks, one of the most important steps is to figure out what happened and why. A detailed (and ideally arms-length) investigation needs to be performed to identify problems with animal management, medical care, general protocol, communications and other areas, and to make any required changes to reduce the risk of it happening again.

Ringworm recommendations

The OSPCA has changed their plans for management of the ringworm outbreak that is ongoing in a Newmarket, Ontario shelter. Now, some (hopefully all) remaining animals will be fostered out to local veterinarians while the situation is being brought under control.

One question that has been asked widely in the press and by the public is why these animals haven't simply been sent to foster homes. Particularly now, with all the attention, there would presumably be many people willing to take in these pets. However, putting animals infected or potentially infected with ringworm into foster homes is a controversial and potentially problematic situation, because ringworm can be spread easily to people and other animals in the household. Sending out an animal that is or may be shedding a zoonotic disease is a tricky situation, and one that can't be taken lightly. Additionally, proper management of these animals can take significant time and effort.

A better approach is to send the animals to places where they can be properly, safely and humanely isolated and treated. Veterinary clinics are a logical option, and a request has been sent to clinics in the area to take animals for quarantine and treatment. The reason veterinary clinics are being solicited is that many clinics have the ability to properly house these animals in isolation units and have the expertise and commitment to properly treat them.

Nonetheless, this is no small favour to ask of these veterinary clinics.  Just as taking an infected pet into a household carries some risk, taking these animals into a clinic is also associated with some risk of transmission to people and other animals. However, with proper facilities and protocols, and the donation of sufficient personnel hours to implement those protocols, the risks should be minimal. To facilitate this, we have developed an information sheet with infection control and treatment recommendations for veterinary clinics. For anyone else who is interested, the document can be found here and on the Worms & Germs Resources page under Information Sheets For Veterinarians.

Image: Ringworm lesions on the paws of a dog. Although this is how "classic" lesions tend to appear, clinical signs of ringworm in pets can be highly variable.  (click image for source)

Why do shelter outbreaks occur?

The recent ringworm outbreak in a Newmarket, Ontario shelter has focused a lot of attention on shelter outbreaks, outbreak prevention and management. A common question that I've been getting in the last couple of days is "Why do these outbreaks occur?"

There are many reasons why an outbreak can develop. I have no first-hand knowledge of the Newmarket outbreak, and don't know what prompted that outbreak, but here are some general causes of outbreaks.

Inadequate protocols:

  • Shelters need clear and logical protocols for all things dealing with animal care. This needs to include aspects like where new animals go, what types of evaluation and monitoring are performed, vaccination and deworming plans, when animals need to be tested or treated, when they can be released from quarantine, how to record and report infectious diseases, how to clean and disinfect areas and items, personal hygiene, and protective clothing, among other things. These protocols need to be in writing and accessible to all personnel.

Inadequate training:

  • Shelters often have large numbers of staff, many with minimal training in animal husbandry or medicine. Proper training is required to ensure that they know what to do and why. (The latter is important because if people know why they need to do something, they are more likely to do it.) Training programs need to be well-structured and formal, not casual, follow-someone-around-and-see-what-they-do training.

Inadequate supervision:

  • Even with good protocols and training, the facility managers need to ensure that protocols are followed. They need to enforce protocols and address problems with compliance. They need to make sure their protocols are up-to-date and consistent with best practices.They need to monitor disease rates and concerning trends of illnesses, so that problems can be identified early. They need to know when to get advice and who to ask (see below).

Infrastructure challenges:

  • Some facilities (or actually, most facilities) are not well designed in terms of infection control. That makes it harder to prevent disease transmission and contain problems. Limitations in isolation/quarantine areas may result in mixing of new (and more likely infectious) animals with those ready for adoption. Few sinks may reduce handwashing, a key component of infection control. A facility that is too small for the animal load results in cramming in too many animals.

Poor awareness:

  • If staff (from management on down) don't understand the issues, they may not act appropriately. Proper routine preventive measures and outbreak response measures may not be convenient, easy or cheap. There must be motivation to implement them. If there is little awareness of the problem, people are less likely to do what is needed.

Failure to act appropriately when the first cases are identified:

  • It is much easier to contain a problem when you act early. If only a few animals have been infected or exposed, it's much easier to take aggressive measures. Once you get a large number of infected or exposed animals, it's much harder to do things like properly separate different groups (e.g. infected vs potentially infected vs non-infected). The more animals affected, the greater the chance of further transmission. Keeping your head in the sand and hoping things will go away can result in a small containable outbreak becoming a facility-wide,  difficult-or-impossible-to-contain outbreak.

Failure to get good advice:

  • People working in shelters can't be expected to be experts in all aspects of infectious diseases and infection control. That's why getting good advice (and following it) is critical. Sometimes, people don't ask for advice or don't go to the real experts. This can happen because they don't really understand the problem, don't know who to contact, don't want to admit they don't know everything or don't realize they are in over their heads. A little good advice, especially early, can make a world of difference.

Bad luck:

  • Ultimately, you can have an exceptionally run facility and still get an outbreak. By the nature of what shelters do, they bring in a lot of animals with potentially infectious diseases and have many animals that are at higher risk of getting sick if they get exposed. It's much less likely to occur with a good infection control program, but you can never 100% guarantee nothing bad will happen. You can't do much about this. All you can do is make the best program possible, and try to limit any problems that develop.

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: via

Testing for ringworm with toothbrushes

If your veterinarian suspects your pet may have ringworm, there are several different ways he or she may test for the causative fungus (a dermatophyte) on your animal's fur and skin.  Some of these techniques are more useful than others in different situations.

  • Wood's lamp:  A Wood's lamp is simply a special ultraviolet light.  Approximately half of all Microsporum canis strains (the most common species of dermatophyte that causes ringworm in cats and dogs) will fluoresce blue-green under such a light. This type of testing is obviously very easy to perform.  However, other debris in an animal’s hair coat may fluoresce as well, and other species of fungus that cause ringworm do not fluoresce, so this test is not useful by itself in most cases.
  • Microscopy: Sometimes ringworm fungus can be seen on hair shafts from an infected pet when examined under a microscope.  However, it is easy to confuse other debris and structures for dermatophytes.  Also, not every hair on an infected animal will carry the fungus, so it's possible to miss the infected hairs altogether with this test.
  • Fungal culture: The best way to diagnose ringworm is to culture the fungus from the infected individual (person or animal). In animals, one of the best ways to collect a sample for culture is to comb over all the fur and skin with a new toothbrush, and then try to grow dermatophytes from the toothbrush. This allows the fur from all over the animal to tested, rather than just one little clump of fur plucked from one area.  It can also make it easier to get a sample from the face and paws of cats, which is where these animals often carry the fungus.  Although fungal culture is the best way to diagnose ringworm, remember that fungal culture takes much longer than bacterial culture – instead of days, it may take up to three weeks to grow some dermatophytes.

It's also important to remember that dogs, and more often cats, may carry dermatophytes on their fur even when they look healthy.  A positive fungal culture from an animal with skin disease, particularly a cat, does not necessarily rule out other diagnoses, so your veterinarian may still recommend other tests as well.  However, any animal with ringworm should be treated to prevent spreading the infection to other animals and people.

More information about ringworm is now available on the Worms&Germs Resources page, and in our archives.

Ringworm Part 2: Cleaning Up

For more information on ringworm, see the Worms & Germs post Ringworm: Skin fungus by any other name.  The photos here show ringworm lesions on a person's arm and on a cat's face, respectively.  (Photo credits: A. Yu, Ontario Veterinary College)

Over the past several years, studies have shown that many environmental disinfectants sold and labeled for use against the fungi that cause ringworm (which are called dermatophytes) in animals and people are, in fact, not effective when used in households and veterinary clinics.  The problem is the chemicals are typically tested against a suspension of the organisms in a test tube, but in the “real world” the fungi are usually found on small fragments of infected hairs.  Its possible that the hair shaft protects the fungus from the actions of some disinfectants.

There are a few disinfectants that have been shown to be effective against dermatophytes even when they are found on infected hairs and skin cells in the environment.  The most readily available one is household bleach, used at concentrations of 1:10 to 1:100.  Other effective products include Virkon-S® (a detergent-peroxide based product) and Peroxigard® (an accelerated hydrogen peroxide product) . An environmental spray containing enilconazole (an antifungal agent that is also found in the topical medication Imaverol®) was also found to be very effective. This product is not approved for household use, but it is approved for use in catteries. It is also licensed as a topical treatment for dogs and horses in most of Europe and Canada.

Eliminating ringworm from the household or clinic environment can be difficult, because the fungus can be found anywhere that an infected animal (or person) sheds hair or skin cells.  Here are some guidelines for environmental disinfection of dermatophytes:

  • All bedding, brushes, combs, rugs, cages, etc. should be vacuumed, scrubbed, and washed with hot water, detergent, and 1:100 chlorine laundry bleach, or another effective disinfectant (see above). It is best to throw out any items that cannot be thoroughly disinfected.
  • Walls, floors, lamps, etc. should be scrubbed and cleaned in a similar manner.
  • Carpeted areas may be impossible to effectively decontaminate. If possible, remove the carpet and either wash in hot water and bleach, or discard it. Otherwise, frequent vacuuming with immediate disposal of the collection bag is necessary.
  • Vehicle interiors should be decontaminated as much as possible in a similar manner.
  • Curtains can be “dry-cleaned” at a professional cleaner.
  • Clean heating vents (from the house furnace) as well as possible. If the house is heated by hot air, change the furnace filter once weekly throughout the decontamination process.
  • Cleaning and disinfection of the environment should be repeated at least once every 4-6 weeks (the more often, the better) until all affected animals and people have eliminated the fungal infection.

Obviously, environmental clean-up for ringworm is quite an undertaking.  If infection can be identified early, lesions can potentially be kept covered and movement of pets can be restricted to reduce the extent and amount of environmental contamination.

Special thanks to Dr. Anthony Yu (one of the veterinary dermatologists at the Ontario Veterinary College) for providing much of the information in this post, as well at the photos.

Ringworm: skin fungus by any other name

Ringworm infection is not caused by a worm at all - it's actually a skin infection caused by certain kinds of fungus called dermatophytes. The scientific name for ringworm is dermatophytosis, or dermatomycosis. Some of the more common zoonotic species of dermatophytes found in animals include Microsporum canis, Trichophyton verrucosum, T. equinum, and T. mentagrophytes. There are also some dermatophytes that are primarily transmitted from person to person that are not carried by animals. These include the fungi that cause athlete's foot and jock itch.

Like many fungi, dermatophytes grow best in warm, moist environments, but they can grow almost anywhere on the body. They tend to grow around hairs and in the superficial layers of the skin, and the infection can be quite itchy. A ringworm skin lesion tends to spread out from one point on the skin, causing hairloss as it progresses, resulting in a bald patch (see picture right). The outside (most active) edge of the infection often appears as a red ring, from which "ringworm" gets its name.  The centre of the lesion may begin to heal, and the hair may start to grow back, even as the bald patch gets bigger.  It may take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for visible lesions to develop after a person or animal has been infected. (Photo credit: A. Yu, Ontario Veterinary College)

Ringworm is quite contagious. The fungi are present in the large numbers on hair and skin cells that are shed by infected individuals. People or animals can be infected through contact with these infected hairs and skin cells, either directly on the affected person or animal (i.e. direct contact), or on things like clothing, blankets, hairbrushes etc. that have touched the affected skin (i.e. indirect contact).

Ringworm occurs all over the world, but no one knows exactly how common it is because there are so many different kinds of fungus that cause it, it's not reportable, and many cases probably go undiagnosed. Signs of ringworm in animals are often the same as in people, however not every animal that is infected with ringworm develops signs of infection. It has been estimated that ~90% of cats that are carrying dermatophytes do not show any signs of infection, but they can still transmit the fungus to other animals and people. (NB: this does NOT mean that ~90% of cats carry dermatophytes!)  Almost any animal can be infected by at least one dermatophyte or another - cats, dogs, rabbits, rodents... even horses and cattle!

  • Early identification of ringworm is important to reduce the risk of transmission to people and other animals. If your pet develops bald patches, particularly if they're itchy, it should be examined by your veterinarian to determine if a fungal infection may be present.
  • If you or anyone in your household develops an area of skin that appears infected (especially if it appears as a red "ring"), keep it covered with a piece of clothing or a bandage and see your doctor.
  • Most cases of ringworm can be treated with either topical (e.g. ointments) or oral anti-fungal medication.
  • Clean your pet's grooming supplies (e.g. brushes, combs) regularly.
  • Always wash your hands after handling your pet.

Watch for another Worms & Germs blog post about ringworm and how to clean up if you or your pet is infected, coming soon!  More information about ringworm and dermatophytes can be found on the CDC's Dermatophytes website.

Hazardous hedgehogs

While most people that want a pet stick to the tried-and-true species, there are a huge number of different animals available. Some make good pets, some are relatively harmless but not suitable for most households and some are potentially dangerous. Hedgehogs probably fit into the latter 2 categories.

No...hedgehogs aren't sneaking out of their cages and attacking people as they sleep. Rather, they can carry a variety of microorganisms that can be transmitted to people. There have been a few reports describing infections associated with hedgehogs, particularly Salmonella and ringworm. An excellent report in the journal Emerging Infectious Diseases  highlighted the diseases hedgehogs have been shown to, or could, transmit to people. Hedgehogs don't have to be sick to be a source of infection.

Hedgehogs have been available for years, but they may be a fad pet at the moment. One breeder is quoted as saying “They are going up these last two months we actually have a waiting list about twenty people,” said Sarah Roberts a breeder in Mansfield. “That's never happened in the year’s of breeding we've done.”

While any pet could transmit infections to people, certain pets are higher risk. Overall, species that are rare or 'fad' pets may be of greater concern because we simply don't know much about them (i.e. what diseases they can transmit, how to reduce risks...).

These small creatures can probably be safe pets in some households, but are they really better than other species? You probably should not have a hedgehog if you or someone else in the household has a compromised immune system or if you have small children. If you do have a hedgehog, don't let it roam freely in the house and wash you hands after handling it.

Information Sheets for Pet Owners

INFORMATION SHEETS specifically for KIDS, for VETERINARIANS, for PHYSICIANS and for PUBLIC HEALTH PERSONNEL are also available on the Worms & Germs RESOURCES page!

Click on the highlighted topics below for information sheets. Topics that are not highlighted are in development and coming soon. Sheets for other animal species and diseases are also under development and will be added when they are available.

Diseases Other
Dogs Rabies Litter Boxes
Cats Giardia Sandboxes
Turtles Toxoplasma Cat Bites
Hamsters Leptospira Raw Meat
Rabbits Clostridium difficile Petting Zoos
Pet Birds Cryptosporidium Needlestick Injuries
African Dwarf Frogs MRSA  
Reptiles MRSP  
  MRSP (Deutsch)  
  MRSP (Francais)  
  Rat Bite Fever  
  Cat Scratch Disease  
  Lyme Disease & Ticks  


Please Remember:

  • Your veterinarian and physician are your ultimate resource for information about the health of your pets or your family.
  • Information provided here is accurate to the best of our knowledge, but infectious diseases can be unpredictable and these sheets are for general information purposes only.
  • There can be great variation in disease risks in different geographic areas. The information provided was developed for Ontario, Canada, but most of the information is relevant for other regions as well.