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News / Health / Clark County Health

Wrangling ringworm saves kittens at Humane Society for Southwest Washington

Animal care staff puts in extra time and care for infected cats, prepares them for adoption

By Amy Libby, Columbian Web Editor
Published: March 19, 2023, 6:03am
9 Photos
Mattie English uses a small pump sprayer to soak a kitten with lime-sulfur treatment at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington in December.
Mattie English uses a small pump sprayer to soak a kitten with lime-sulfur treatment at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington in December. (Amy Libby/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The kittens up for adoption at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington are cute — pouncing on toys and chirping for attention.

Most kittens, however, don’t arrive at the shelter healthy and ready for adoption. Thousands come through shelter’s doors each year with injuries, upper respiratory infections, fleas and ringworm.

After more than 2,400 volunteer hours at the shelter, I’ve seen my fair share of sick cats and kittens. I’ve also seen how hard shelter staff work to rehabilitate those cats so they can be adopted into permanent homes. When I decided to pick up my camera again after years away from photography, the only project I wanted to tackle was documenting that process.

I spent two days in December photographing everything that happens in the stray cat areas of the shelter. But it was the ringworm treatment that caught my eye.

How to Help

Visit hssw.org/donate to see Humane Society for Southwest Washington’s wish list and other ways to help, including fostering and volunteering.

Though fairly benign, ringworm, a common fungal infection, is among the more demanding ailments for a shelter to treat. Not every shelter around the country has enough resources to do so and euthanizes infected cats and kittens instead.

“It’s not a life-threatening disease but it does have a long course of treatment and it is communicable to people,” said Dr. Margaret Wixson, vice president of veterinary services at Humane Society for Southwest Washington in Vancouver. “It’s an easy thing to treat but not a simple thing to treat.”

Treatment takes weeks or months. It requires a quarantine space to prevent ringworm from spreading to every cat in the shelter.

The Humane Society for Southwest Washington has had a ringworm treatment program for more than a decade. The program, which expanded in recent years with help from a Rachael Ray Foundation grant, saves the lives of cats and kittens each year that would otherwise be euthanized over a readily treatable skin infection.

Mattie English reread the checklist intently. Her brow furrowed as she checked the supplies she’d already gathered: toys, wash cloths, extra towels, litter boxes and water dishes.

The recent Mountain View High School graduate had only worked as an animal care technician at the shelter for a few months, but that day, she would take the lead on applying a lime-sulfur treatment to ringworm-infected kittens with supervision from a more experience staff member.

Ringworm often presents as bald patches, frequently circular, with raised bumps. It typically glows apple green under a Wood’s lamp — a black light wand that staff use to scan each cat as it enters the shelter.

“Another reason that it is such a challenge is that not all ringworm glows under the Wood’s lamp,” Wixson said. Experienced staff examine lesions and note how many cats are affected.

“A lot of it comes down to experience and knowledge to diagnose,” Wixson said.

Ringworm spreads through direct contact with spores, but won’t take hold unless there’s a break in the skin.

Healthy adult cats adequately groom themselves to avoid infection, Wixson explained, but kittens often haven’t learned that skill yet.

Cats with ringworm are housed in a quarantine area at the Humane Society for Southwest Washington.

Outside, English tucked her long hair back into a pony tail and donned a protective gown, booties and two layers of gloves. Two or three people can work in the 8-by-16-foot space but not easily. A bank of kennels on one wall hold six cats ideally, but kennels can be divided to hold more kittens if necessary.

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As staffers clean kennels and medicate the tiny felines, they have to watch where the playful kittens put their spore-laden paws.

Although ringworm usually resolves on its own after about six months, treatments speed the process. The shelter treats ringworm orally with daily medication, and topically with antifungals.

“It’s important to treat from the inside and from the outside,” said Wixson.

The topical treatment is the odorous lime-sulfur mixture English carefully spread over the kittens.

“I’m not really afraid of super gross things,” English said.

While the treatment is often referred to as dipping, the shelter generally uses a small sprayer and sponges.

“When you’re treating cats, of course, dipping them into a bucket of liquid is not always the safest,” said Michelle Reeves, animal care supervisor for cats and certified feline training and behavior specialist.

Dipping soaks the kittens to the skin, which is important to treat ringworm, but it’s unpleasant for the cats. Using a sprayer or sponge is less likely to chill them, Wixson said.

Preventing ringworm’s spread can be time consuming, requiring staff to gown up every time they go into a quarantine area and then remove and dispose of the protective gear properly.

“It’s a lot of gowning up, gowning out — a lot of extra work just to do our basic daily check-ins,” Reeves said.

For the shelter’s cat team, this adds up because staff are in and out of the quarantine area at least three times a day for monitoring, feedings and cleaning.

“We have had really good success not spreading ringworm,” Reeves said. “Our staff have not appeared to catch ringworm or spread it among the (animal) population.”

Staffers are paying attention to more than just ringworm, though.

Like every feline in the shelter, kittens with ringworm are monitored every morning, Reeves explained. “Do they have any other ailments? Are they having gastrointestinal issues or upper respiratory infection issues? Are they depressed in their kennels? Are they eating, are they drinking? Are they going potty?”

In 2022, of the more than 2,200 of kittens that came through the Humane Society for Southwest Washington’s doors, 91 were treated for ringworm. Last year, for the first time, the shelter adopted out cats still undergoing ringworm treatment. The change in policy has proven to be a boon for adopters and kittens.

Not only is it good for the cats, it also helps reduce the shelter’s population while kitten season is in full swing — an annual stretch from spring through fall that strains capacity, more so since the pandemic curtailed spay and neuter programs.

Potential adopters “get gowned up and then they get to meet the one or two cats that they’re interested in,” Reeves said. “They … play with them in the kennels but they’re doing this with gloves on.”

The shelter medical staff also provides adopters with the final courses of treatment and information to help prevent them from catching the fungus.

Just shy of half of those 91 kittens and cats were adopted while still being treated.

The kitten shook hard, splashing English in the eye with the rotten-egg yellow liquid she had just applied. She blinked hard, her eyes already watering from the smell and close quarters.

“You get used to it very quickly. And there’s definitely been worse smells from cats that linger for a very long time,” English said.

On dip days, everything in the kittens’ kennels is swapped out. The contaminated bedding and cat furniture is sanitized separately from regular laundry and dishes to protect staff and volunteers.

The counters near English’s sink workstation were stacked with colorful bedding, toys, fresh litter boxes and towels.

She towel-dried and snuggled the kittens before returning them to clean kennels with fresh bedding and toys.

The next day, English was back in with the ringworm kittens, this time to play with them.

“I know that they want to have fun,” English said. “They deserve as much fun as normal cats without ringworm.”

By the end of the year, those kittens had all gone to their forever homes.