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.