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.