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.