How I Dealt with Ringworm in my Newborn Foster Litter.
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In the animal rescue community, there are a handful of diseases that scare people away from fostering. Just the words: Distemper, Feline Leukemia, FIV, FIP, and ringworm bring fear to foster people alike. The biggest fear is that these diseases will spread to their own pets. Ringworm is different. It is zoonotic, meaning that it can pass from animal to human. However, ringworm is treatable and curable in both pets and humans. This doesn’t mean that things are simple, but with a few instructions, ringworm can hopefully be contained and if not contained at least treated.
What is ringworm?
Ringworm is, in fact, a fungus and not a worm at all. In Humans, the most common occurrence starts out as a dry patch of skin. It could easily be mistaken for a patch of eczema. Then the edges rise, become red and begin to itch. This produces the standard ‘ring’. Extremely contagious, it is categorized on humans by the part of the body that it infects. Athlete’s foot (on your feet) and jock itch (in the nether regions) are all forms of ringworm. Ringworm does best in hot & humid conditions so it’s no surprise why athlete’s foot and jock itch are some of the most common places for humans to contract ringworm.
How does ringworm appear in animals?
In animals and specifically cats, ringworm does not appear in the standard ring form. A flaky bald patch that may or may not look red and irritated almost always includes hair loss. In fact, any type of hair loss on your cat should immediately put you on guard for ringworm. If you are fostering cats or kittens, ringworm should be your first thought. Hair loss in a personal cat still rings my panic button because I foster other cats. But if you know that your cat does not go outside, I might investigate some other options for the hair loss without immediately jumping to a ringworm conclusion. Ringworm still could be the answer, but ringworm does not normally grow indoors under normal conditions.
Ringworm ‘spores’ contaminate an area for a long time
Ringworm is extremely contagious because it remains hardy in an environment for a long time. Animals with ringworm contaminate the environment by shedding skin and hair that contains the ringworm fungus. These ‘spores’ remain active and contagious in an environment for up to 2 years if the surfaces are not fully cleaned. Unfortunately, ringworm is resistant to many common disinfectants. The best way to rid the environment of ringworm spores is to apply a bleach/water mixture. However, many surfaces cannot be bleached, i.e., carpet or painted walls, etc. Vacuuming and wiping down walls helps to control the spores in the environment. Cleaning is as important as treating your cat or yourself.
Healthy immune systems
Healthy humans and healthy animals usually resist an initial encounter of ringworm. Weakened immune systems, whether due to illness, or stress are the individuals that actually contract this fungus.
I myself contracted ringworm only once and it was not when I had ringworm kittens in my home. I held a kitten for 30 minutes at one of our rescue functions. A very stressful time in my life, I worried about many things, none of which involved the rescue. In fact, I attended this function as a distraction from my life. Seven days later, the kitten I held was diagnosed with ringworm and I contracted it a few days later. Many others at the function held that same kitten, but I was the only one to ‘catch it’.
Like healthy adult humans, healthy adult animals can normally fight off an initial ringworm encounter. Weakened immune systems in sick, stressed or elderly cats and undeveloped immune systems as in newborn kittens are the animals most susceptible to developing ringworm.
My newborn foster litter
Dealing with ringworm was not foreign to me but it has been many years since I had to think about it in my house. My old rescue experienced many cats and kittens with ringworm and I witnessed many different processes, advice, and products. With all of this information, I still felt like I was in denial when I noticed a bald spot on momma’s head.
My newborn litter this year had already dealt with tragedy. Two of the five kittens born to my pregnant foster mom died prior to the ringworm development.
My momma cat was extremely stressed when I brought her into my house. She was scared of me and everything else in the foster room, my master bathroom. However, if I was able to scoop her up, she was a happy and content little purr machine. But if I broke contact with her and placed her on the floor, she became scared of me again. Repeatedly, she acted the same way each time I visited her. I suspected she was bipolar! I’m just kidding, but it did feel that way. Anyway, momma gave birth only two days after coming to stay with me. She remained scared after the birth and was downright aggressive towards me if the kittens cried. The kittens were very vocal so I was always dodging her swats and bites.
Momma developed a hairless spot on the top of her head within a week after giving birth. I suspected ringworm briefly. I had been taught that ringworm spores show up under a blacklight as lime green flakes. This was my primary way to determine if ringworm was present. Several days of black-lighting momma’s spot did not reveal any potential ringworm. My foster coordinator also checked momma’s spot when she went back to the shelter for a vaccination. Neither of us thought it looked like ringworm so we assumed she rubbed her head raw on something in the bathroom because of her high stress. I treated it with a wash and ointment.
First spots on the kittens
The kitten’s spots showed up when they turned 4 weeks old. Again I didn’t think it was ringworm. Both girls developed a hairless spot (one each) on their bellies under one of their legs. First noticing the spots on a Saturday, I waited to contact the shelter until Monday, knowing that it was not an emergency. Arrangements were made for Wednesday when I transported one of the girls down for a skin scrape. By Wednesday morning, four days after I discovered the spots, I knew beyond a doubt that it was ringworm. I didn’t need to see the results of the test, but I took the girl to be tested anyway. Multiple spots had shown up on this one girl and these spots lit up like a Christmas tree under the blacklight.
Deciding whether to return Momma and her kittens
Devasted by the presence of ringworm, I thought about what to do with Momma and her kittens. Do you know how much work is involved in containing ringworm? Besides myself, three other people live in my house not to mention seven other pets. I also knew that Momma and her kittens would get worse if I took her and the kittens back to the shelter. She was already stressed in my house, but being in a shelter with tons of noises and smells would just increase her stress level. I wanted to provide a stress-free environment for my foster litter to recover from ringworm. So I made the tough decision to keep momma and her newborns and to treat them in an isolated environment. Luckily Momma’s kittens were already confined because they were newborns. I only had to clean, disinfect and keep cleaning one room.
Source of ringworm
Ringworm thrives in hot and humid climate. This summer had endless days of humid weather. Momma was most likely exposed to ringworm shortly before she was surrendered to the shelter as a stray. Her stress level was very high after all the changes she endured plus giving birth. The ringworm took advantage and she contracted the fungus.
I spent much time trying to figure out why it took 4 weeks for the kittens to develop spots as the incubation period is normally between 7-10 days. The long timeframe between momma’s spot and the kitten’s spots was one of the reasons I didn’t believe it was ringworm. My best theory is that the kittens obtained antibodies from the colostrum momma provided in her first milk. Momma’s immune system was probably pretty strong prior to giving birth. She passed antibodies onto her kids’ that helped fight off the fungus for the first few weeks. Whether the fungus defeated the antibodies or the antibodies wore off, the girls developed spots when they were 4 weeks old. The boy didn’t develop any spots until week 6 or 7. His spots were less severe. At the time, I attributed this to the fact that the boy was bigger and more developed than the girls, but who knows.
With momma having a spot of ringworm, it was inevitable that the kittens contracted ringworm before they developed an immune system. My shelter informed me, they had at least 13 cats or kittens under their care with ringworm. All came in as isolated incidents and did not spread while at the shelter.
What to do to treat Ringworm
The first step when ringworm is diagnosed in your cat or your foster cats is to confine them to one room. Pick a room that is easily cleanable. The best possible environment to treat ringworm is a room with no carpet and one that has as many bleachable surfaces as possible. Make sure it is large enough to accommodate your cat or cats comfortably. My momma and her litter of kittens were already confined to my master bathroom. This was a perfect room as almost every surface could be bleached.
Throw away anything that cannot be cleaned.
For all my litters, I purchase large square pieces of carpet from Ollie’s Discount Store. In this way, these inexpensive carpets are disposable at any time. I reuse carpets from litter to litter when no disease or sickness makes its way into the kittens. With cases like URIs or UTIs, I toss the carpets after the litter goes back to the shelter. In a case of ringworm, the carpets were tossed immediately after confirmation of the fungus. These carpet squares are not bleachable or washable so they would just be a breeding ground for any fungus to grow and spread.
Besides tossing the carpet squares, anything else in the room that is not permanently nailed down and not bleachable or washable was thrown out. This includes any toys that are not purely plastic including stuffed animal toys and throw-rugs. I replaced my carpet squares with old bleachable towels and cheap bath mats that also can go through the washing machine. I kept a few plastic toys for the kittens to play. They are diseased but still kittens with the constant urge to play. Throwing these things away means placing them directly into a trash bag and sealing the bag before leaving the room. No need to spread the ringworm around by collecting other trash and the bag accidentally falls open onto your carpeted floor.
Against my better judgment, I retained the large soft playpen that I only purchased last year. Momma cat did not like it as she felt insecure with all the openings. But I ended up using it as a holding tank for the litter box and food bowls since Momma was not exactly the tidiest of cats. Momma & I had some disagreements on where was an appropriate place to raise her kids. She kept moving them into the litter box and I moved them out. Finally, I gave her a large plastic container that was turned on its side and she consented to keep them here.
Treat as ringworm even before confirmed
If ringworm is suspected in your personal cat that has full run of the house, make sure you isolate him or her immediately. Letting your cat have a full range of his or her normal area, will produce more cleaning for you and expose other pets and people to the ringworm spores. After isolation, start cleaning areas that your cat likes to frequent. Bleach what you can and vacuum anything that cannot be bleached or thrown away.
Treating kittens & momma
Momma & the kittens had a daily treatment and a weekly treatment.
My daily routine involved me ‘suiting up’ to play, hold and administer meds to my ringworm babies. I kept a long-sleeved white T-shirt (white – just so I could bleach it) in the foster room out of reach of the kittens. I slipped this T-shirt on over my normal clothes whenever I was going to handle the kittens. Before sitting on the floor, I laid a towel down with another towel draped over my legs. All of this was to minimize the amount of contact I had with the ringworm that could potentially leave the room. Ringworm spreads by direct contact with the ringworm or items used in direct contact with the ringworm. Spores are produced and flake off onto anything the ringworm comes into contact with. The spores can attach to clothes, shoes, brushes, bowls, litter boxes. Pretty much ringworm spores attach to anything possible. You can spread it before you even know to disinfect it. Minimizing contact with the actual ringworm and leaving all supplies within the foster room is the best way to contain the disease. The two towels and my T-shirt were washed and bleached twice a week. Daily would be perfect, but I needed to be realistic. The cleaning involved with ringworm is a marathon and not a sprint and I knew I was in for many weeks of cleaning.
Weigh each kitten
I weighed each kitten to make sure that the ringworm was not affecting their kitten development. Plus it’s a good idea to weigh your newborn kittens daily, anyway. Any sudden weight loss can be a sign of a potential problem.
Treat with anti-fungal wipe
I used Chlorhexidine pads that I found online. The description stated they worked on skin infections and funguses for dogs and cats. No restrictions were listed for newborn kittens. The kittens were already four weeks old, so I didn’t feel as paranoid in using these wipes. I knew the kittens were still fragile but they were doing well and growing. It is not made specifically for ringworm. But I read many reviews and it seemed to help many skin infections and diseases including ringworm. Chlorhexidine is also one of the antiseptics used to clean a doctor’s hands before surgery. If it disinfects that well, I wanted to use it to dry up this ringworm.
I treated each spot with one side of the pad. I didn’t cross contaminate by using the same side on a different fungus spot. Any improvement in a ringworm spot could get worse by adding more of the fungus to it, even if the source was an antiseptic wipe. Each pad is the size of a Clearasil acne wipe. Don’t expect it to be a huge sheet. But it was large enough to give a few wipes at a specific spot. I did go through lots of pads as the ringworm spread throughout the kitten’s bodies.
Treat with anti-fungal cream
Once all the kittens were adequately wiped, I applied a 2% Miconazole cream to each of the spots. Miconazole cream is the main ingredient in vaginal yeast infection treatment. Vaginal yeast infection and ringworm are not the same types of fungus, but miconazole treats both funguses. You can find it in any grocery or drug store. However, I found that buying it online made more sense. Grocery and drug stores provide the vaginal inserts that are not needed in this type of application. Buying online allowed me to purchase a larger tube for less money and I didn’t need to throw away the vaginal inserts.
I used Q-tips to apply the miconazole to the ringworm spots. Squeezing out a generous portion onto my Q-tip, I applied it to the kitten’s skin. I used both ends of the Q-tip, but I never placed a used end on the tube of Miconazole. Again each end of the Q-tip was only used for one spot on a kitten. Same reason as the antiseptic wipes, I didn’t want to cross-contaminate the spots.
Disposal of used supplies
After each application, my Q-tips and medicated wipes were collected in a folded, thick paper towel that I set on the floor. I did not want to collect my disposable supplies on the floor or my towel I was reusing daily. Luckily the kittens didn’t play with my paper towel or my Q-tips until the week that I took them back. They were curious souls, but not very quick in learning things. My paper towel of used supplies was disposed of in the covered trash can that I kept in the foster room.
Exiting the room
After each daily treatment, I would remove the two towels and my T-shirt and place them on the half wall I had in the bathroom. Again, the kittens didn’t mess with the towels because they were too small to reach it. Only in the last week, they stayed with me, did anyone attempt to play with my hanging towels. I washed my hands thoroughly before leaving the room and made sure that I didn’t touch the kittens again on this visit. Once out of the room, I used Lotrimin spray to cover my shoes or feet. Lotrimin is used for jock itch or athlete’s foot. Both are forms of ringworm. As I write this I know I sound fanatical, but every precaution helped to prevent anyone in my house from contracting ringworm.
Once a week, I gave momma and the kittens a bath. Momma & the kittens didn’t leave my bathroom. My bathroom only has a shower and no tub, so I used a deep bucket to bathe & dip momma and the kittens. The bucket that I purchased long ago has hash marks on the interior of the bucket that shows gallons on one side and liters on the other. This is a very helpful thing for dipping and I recommend buying a bucket with similar measurements.
When the kittens were first diagnosed with ringworm, I received Pure Oxygen shampoo from my shelter to bathe the kittens. Pure Oxygen works more like a dip as you fill your bucket to the appropriate level and add your Pure Oxygen. Holding each kitten under the water (except for the head) for as long as they can stand it works well for this shampoo. The shampoo does not lather up and there is no need to rinse them off. I used this for several weeks until I ran out of the shampoo I was provided.
After the Pure Oxygen, I purchased FarmPet Pet Wash, a medicated shampoo for dogs & cats. I originally purchased this to bathe my dogs. There was an incident where the foster room door was left slightly open, and my curious soul, Elliot walked right in. I caught him before anything could happen with momma because I think she was going to mess him up if he came within a few feet of her kittens. But he had also entered the contaminated zone. So I washed him in the FarmPet Pet Wash before the ringworm penetrated his immune system.
But after I ran out of the Pure Oxygen, I looked further into this shampoo to bathe the kittens. Again, there were no indications on the use of newborn kittens. I decided to try this on the kittens as they were very healthy (besides the ringworm) and pushing 7-8 weeks. A previous foster mom that I felt was an expert at ringworm told me that cats or kittens should always be bathed before receiving a Lyme dip treatment. She suggested normal everyday cat or kitten shampoo. But, I decided to give the Pet Wash shampoo a try.
I filled up the bucket for this bath. Then, I placed each kitten in the bucket to fully soak them. Remember keeping the kittens head above water avoids panic on their end. Washing the head last, allows the kitten to remain calm through most of the bath. For more details on bathing cats, please see How to Bathe Your Cat Successfully. Pushing the bucket away, I applied the shampoo as the kittens stood in my shower. I really scrubbed each kitten working through their entire body, and not just the ringworm spots. The bath helped to remove spores from all parts of their body. The bath is more of a preventative step to avoid the ringworm from spreading further. Pulling the bucket back, I dunked them again. I held most of their body under the water for as long as they would tolerate it. Kittens are easy because they are small and you can usually control them. My one girl tolerated the bath very well and she got better each week. However, the boy, grew stronger each week and fought me more and more as the weeks went on. After each individual bath, I placed them into a carrier with a towel to soak up some of the water. Then I dumped the water from my bucket and filled it up for the next victim.
Once all kittens and momma were in the carrier, I took each one out and dried them with a hairdryer. The kittens were not a fan of the hairdryer. But it was necessary in order to release them into the room without their wet fur picking up any stray litter or dirt. The kittens didn’t put up much fuss with the hairdryer except for the one girl that tolerated the bath well. I dried her last and left her in the carrier and placed the hairdryer up to the door. She dried, but not as well as the others. I’ve found in my many years of bathing cats, that if they are good with a bath, they normally dislike the drying part and vice versa.
Lyme Dip treatment
I got in the habit of bathing momma and her kittens on Wednesday evening. Then Thursday about lunchtime, I dipped everyone and stored them in the carrier until they dried. Leaving them in the carrier for multiple hours gave me the chance to thoroughly clean the foster room. But I’m getting ahead of myself…….
Lyme Dip has a very putrid smell. Rotten eggs are what comes to mind first. No matter what room that you dip your cat in, the smell will spread through the entire house. I have more experience with Lyme Dip than actual ringworm. Lyme Dip has many other uses, including treatment of mange on a cat. But Ham’s story is for another day.
Lyme Dipping is all about the prep work because the actual dipping is very quick. I lay a very thick towel in the bottom of a carrier and set the carrier close to where I will be dipping. I recommend dedicating a towel for Lyme Dipping. Bleaching works well on the towel, however, the rotten smell never really leaves the towel. I collect a plastic cup for pouring over the animals and a washcloth to use on the heads. An additional dish towel or hand towel works well to wipe up the floor when the Lyme Dip mixture drips on the floor or on the wall. I clean this up as fast as possible as the Lyme does stain if left on too long.
Using my bucket that has the measurements on the interior, I fill the bucket with one gallon of water. The water needs to be as warm as you think a cat or kitten can stand it. I use the same Lyme Dip for all the cats/kittens that I’m dipping. So the last kitten is getting a colder bath than the first. Then I measure out 4 ozs of lime dip. My measuring cup is an old Pasta Sauce jar, Di Campania Classico, I think. It has the correct 4oz measurement on the side. It also has 8oz, 12oz & 16 ozs. All that matters is that you use something that can be dedicated to Lyme Dip. I throw the 4 ozs of Lyme into the water and dunk my cup a few times. The Lyme settles to the bottom so you are able to get a few dunks before all the water turns a yellowy color.
The kitten with the least amount of ringworm covering his or her body becomes the first victim. Then I proceed upward in the progression of ringworm covering each kitten. For my litter, the boy was almost always first – except at the very end when one of the girls cleared up.
After retrieving a kitten, I slowly placed them into the water/Lyme dip mixture. Keeping their head out of the water, I tried holding them under as long as they would allow. Make sure that no Lyme dip/water mixture gets into their eyes or mouth. Then I let them stand up in the bucket. Make sure you have a firm grasp on them as they will try to leave at every moment. Do not let them wiggle out and go running around the room. They will squirm and try leaving the bucket. Some will even try to bite you. You must persevere. Most cats and kittens acclimate to the dip. Some, however, do get worse with time. These are the stubborn ones.
Taking the washcloth, I dunk it in the mixture and drape it over the kitten’s body. I repeat about a dozen times. I may also try holding them under again, making sure that the head remains above water. It all depends on how much they need Lyme Dip and how good they are in the mixture. But either way, I give each cat or kitten a good soaking.
Lastly, I hold the kitten’s head up with the nose pointed to the ceiling. I use a non-dripping washcloth to wipe down the cats face. Starting at the temples and stroking toward the body. Since the kitten’s head is raised the mixture does not run into its eyes. I’ve also heard that using a sponge accomplishes this well too. But I have had great success with the washcloth. Both my girls and my momma cat had spots on their head. The head is a fairly common location for ringworm to develop, so just make sure you are cautious about applying it to the head. Treat the head carefully, but make sure it is treated. If your cat doesn’t have ringworm there now, it might in the future. Make multiple wipes with the washcloth over the head. More if there are already spots on the head.
Once thoroughly soaked, I placed each victim in the carrier. The carrier became crowded, but they all fit. If you have more than three kittens, I might split them up into multiple carriers. No drying is needed for the Lyme Dip. Allow the kittens to dry naturally. The Lyme Dip works better this way. I’m not sure why, but I’ve heard it from multiple sources that are familiar with ringworm treatment. Use your hand towel to wipe up any drips off of the floor or anything else that turns yellow from the Lyme.
I kept all the kittens and momma in the carrier until they dried. I used this time without the kittens to thoroughly clean and bleach the bathroom.
Dump all litter into the trash. Seal the trash bag before leaving the foster room and take the trash bag directly outside. I vacuum the floor to remove all the litter, food or general dirt that kittens do produce. The litter box, trash can, pooper scooper, food/water bowls, and toys all get bleached. I prefer to use Clorox Cleanup with bleach. It has enough bleach to do the job but doesn’t cause damage to floors and walls. In fact, I use it on all my woodwork. It makes a room look like it was freshly painted. I have never had an issue with it staining or bleaching my colored walls. I suggest you test this if you plan on using it like this. But I have had great success with Clorox Cleanup with bleach. However, it does still stain clothes very easily. Be dressed to bleach.
I sprayed the soft playpen with Clorox cleanup and wiped it down as best as I could each week. Once the kittens went back to the shelter, I took the playpen outside for a full spray down with bleach. Splitting the floor into sections, I bleached the entire floor each week. The cleaning was intense. I believe I should have done it more often than once a week, but I really didn’t have the time. However, I believe a thorough cleaning once a week is better than a half-assed cleaning every day.
Transport all towels directly from the contaminated room to the washing machine. Do not pass GO, and do not leave towels in your laundry room waiting for a free washer. The ringworm spores could drop off in your laundry room and potentially contaminate another area of your house. Wash the towels and the bath mats on HOT and include pure bleach.
After cleaning the room, new towels were spread across the floors. New litter was added to the litter box. I returned the food and water to the bowls and pitched out any toys that I had cleaned. Momma & the kittens ended up in the carrier for about 4-6 hours. They were normally dry by this time. If your kittens are present in the carrier with momma, this should not be a problem as the kittens took a snack from momma. If you don’t have a momma or you had to split up the litter into multiple carriers, make sure that food is provided to the kittens as 4-6 hours is a long time for a newborn. One of the kittens hated being confined to the carrier. Covering the carrier, quieted down the crying for the most part. Whatever the reason, this calms most cats.
After I released them into their clean room, I sprayed down the carrier with Clorox cleanup and sent the towels through the washer with bleach.
Continued treatment at the shelter
The daily and weekly cleaning was almost a full-time job. I was good for the first month of cleaning and treatments, but after that it gets old. I smelled a lot like bleach for about 6 weeks. And my hands were so dry from the amount of washing I did. Washing my hands was the last thing I did each time I left the room.
Exhaustion was only part of what I felt when the shelter suggested bringing them in to be checked. I felt like I missed out on having any fun with this litter. I knew every litter couldn’t go smoothly, but this litter had its share of problems. By the time they were 10 weeks old, the one girl was totally clear of ringworm spots. She developed spots early and it spread on her fast. The other girl ended up being worse, but she was drying up when I returned her to the shelter. The boy didn’t have many spots and they developed much later than the outbreak on the girls, so he was a little behind in the process and needed more time to heal.
After the shelter vet examined them, he shipped them off to the quarantine area of the shelter. They stayed at the shelter so they could be treated with oral medication. They were finally old enough at 10 almost 11 weeks. The shelter continued giving them Lyme Dip treatment in addition to the oral medication. It did take almost 6 more weeks of oral meds and Lyme Dip to fully clear up Momma and her kittens. Most likely the ringworm cleared up prior to these 6 additional weeks, however, treatment should always continue for several weeks after the fungus clears. Recurrence is very common.
Ringworm is treatable if you have the patience
Ringworm is not something that can be rushed. It spreads and retreats multiple times before it finally goes away. Patience and diligence are the most important things you need to treat ringworm. Even though my one girl was totally free from ringworm when she was returned to the shelter, she continued treatment. One reason is that you want the kittens to be free of any reoccurrence for any potential adopters. Finding a forever home is great for volunteers and staff, but to the kitten, it’s still another stressful situation. And stress is one of the things that can bring on a reoccurrence.
My views above are just how I dealt with ringworm in my foster litter. I am not an expert and I don’t guarantee that following all my steps will prevent you from having an outbreak in your home. Having healthy adults, free from stress and disease, are your best chance to prevent the ringworm from spreading. But a little luck helps too! I tried my best at containing the ringworm to my foster room and I was successful. In the foster world, we call this an accomplishment! Maybe next time I won’t be as lucky, but I will continue to try for the benefit of the babies.
Tell me how you have treated ringworm in your cats in the past.