Ringworm is more than a pesky nuisance

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Sarah Mills-Lloyd, UW-Extension

The past week’s dose of sunshine made me stop and think about a disease not commonly thought of this time of year. It usually seems to proliferate in late spring or when the dull dreary weather seems to never end.

The disease I thought about was ringworm, a self-limiting, fungal skin disease in cattle, most commonly diagnosed by the appearance of numerous circular, crusty, hairless patches noted on the head, neck, shoulder and abdomen of cattle.

The disease is not caused by a worm, but rather a fungus. The species of the fungus is trichophyton.

If you were to look at the fungus under a microscope, it is a work of art with all its branches and hyphae. However, many cattle owners do not share the same feelings particularly when a farm has it in epidemic portions. Calves have a greater tendency to acquire the skin infection.

Most often the skin disease is spread through other infected animals, equipment or housing arrangement, as the spores will stay active for long periods of time on any porous substrate such as wood or concrete.

Treatment options will range. In the past, skin lesions were coated with used motor oil. However, this only led to other issues as motor oil contains heavy metals, which were then absorbed through the skin of the animals.

Most often, the lesions will decrease when animals are put onto pasture, as they are not only exposed to ultraviolet light, but also have decreased exposure to other infected animals. Some animals will “self-cure” in six to 12 weeks. However, if left untreated, the animals will become a reservoir for other animals and perpetuate contaminating their environment.

Topical treatments are preferred over systemic treatments. Consult with your veterinarian on the specific products available for treatment.

Cleaning the environment contaminated with the fungal spores is next to impossible due to the construction material. Porous surfaces such as wood and concrete have crevices that cannot be readily cleaned, but cleaning will reduce the amount of contamination in a pen. If wood seems to be a reservoir for the disease, replacing all wood may be an alternative.

Remember the phrase, “The solution to pollution is dilution.” Cleaning will help to limit the spread of the disease but might not eliminate all infective material.

A word of caution: This specific fungal disease does have zoonotic potential. Therefore, exposure to the fungal spores either through infected environment, animals or equipment might cause human skin lesions similar to those found on cattle. Consult your physician if you have circular, itchy, crusty lesions that do not seem to go away.

Sarah Mills-Lloyd is the University of Wisconsin-Extension dairy and livestock agent for Marinette and Oconto counties.