Intermountain Humane Society euthanizes 23 cats after ringworm outbreak

Intermountain Humane Society in Pine Junction is embroiled in a controversy sure to stir any animal lover. After an outbreak of ringworm, center personnel decided to euthanize six cats that came down with the ailment, as well as seventeen others, in an effort to halt the epidemic. But as noted in a Channel 7 report, plenty of commenters on message boards like this one feel medical treatment should have been substituted for more drastic measures.

Look below to read the shelter's explanation for its actions:

To the friends of Intermountain Humane Society:

On December 28, 2010, a case of ringworm appeared on a cat that had been taken in to the IMHS Shelter earlier in the month. The cat was immediately isolated and after testing positive, according to shelter policy for highly contagious diseases, she was humanely euthanized.

Ringworm is a fungal infection affecting the skin, hair and, occasionally, the nails of cats; the disease can be passed to dogs and humans as well, with children being especially susceptible. While not fatal in and of itself, because of the fungus's long dormancy, durability and highly contagious nature, ringworm is pernicious in the harm it can cause to close-population environments like an animal shelter.

From the instant ringworm was detected in the IMHS shelter, industry-standard precautionary measures were implemented. The staff did not handle our cats unless absolutely necessary and did not allow any volunteers or visitors to touch them. The main cattery area was bleached repeatedly. Cleaning and care for the shelter's resident dogs and their kennels was conducted separately from the cattery.

Even with these preventative measures, ringworm was diagnosed positive on several more cats in the last week. In light of the rapid spread of the disease and its paralyzing impact on IMHS operations the Board of Directors, in consultation with staff, made the difficult decision to euthanize the residents of the shelter's cattery.

IMHS's decision to put down our cats was made after careful consideration of the alternatives. Treatment time for ringworm is prolonged, up to several months, during which time the animal must remain in isolation and be subjected to an intense course of topical dips and daily medication as well as repeated physical exams and fungal cultures. Our cats were already showing signs of stress after one week of no interaction with staff and visitors; it was hard to imagine how much they would suffer if we chose to continue down that road.

The highly contagious nature of ringworm and its potential impact on public health also played a major role in the decision we made. We could not, in good faith, send any of these cats out in to the community if we had the slightest suspicion they might be infected.

Finally, we knew that until we had removed the threat of ringworm from the shelter, IMHS would have to halt operations. No cats could be adopted out and no animals could be taken in for several months.

The procedures were conducted after hours, in the IMHS shelter, on the evening of January 6th. Each cat was humanely euthanized under veterinary supervision with IMHS staff in attendance. In a secure and peaceful setting, our cats were given the individual attention and comfort this infection had denied them for so many days.

The IMHS shelter is currently undergoing an intensive cleaning using a heavy bleach solution and super-heated steam, the best-known way to kill the ringworm fungus. All items that cannot be cleaned are being removed from the premises. Stainless steel kennels and litter pans that are easier to disinfect will be installed in the cattery area. No cats will be taken into the shelter until this deep-clean has been completed.

While our resident dogs have not been directly exposed to the ringworm fungus, we have taken the precautionary measure of giving them all a topical treatment of lime sulfur.

Going forward, Intermountain Humane Society will, as always, continue our efforts to provide a safe and healthy environment for our animals. It is well recognized, however, that even the best practices by the most experienced staff in state-of-the-art facilities cannot completely prevent such unfortunate situations as we have just come through.

Thank you for your support, patience and understanding during this difficult time.

Dianna Whitlock Shelter Director

(For the reader's reference, attached the following information is extracted from research presented by the Koret Shelter Medicine Program at UC-Davis.)

Ringworm FAQs

What is ringworm and who can get it?Ringworm dermatophytosis is a fungal infection affecting the skin, hair and occasionally nails of animals (and people). Three species of the fungus most commonly affect cats and dogs: Microsporum canis, Trichophyton mentagrophytes and Microsporum gypseum. These three species can be passed between cats and dogs as well as to humans and other species.

How is ringworm spread?

T. mentagrophytes is thought to be contracted mainly from exposure to rodent nests. M. gypseum can be picked up from contaminated soil, though the potential exists for it to be spread in any contaminated environment. M. canis is most often spread from contact with an infected animal or a contaminated environment and therefore is by far the most likely to be a serious problem in an animal shelter.

The ringworm fungus is very durable. It is most persistent in a moist environment protected from exposure to sunlight, a setting which accurately describes most animal shelters. To know that the fungus can be spread readily on grooming tools, toys and bedding, as well as by humans through their hands and clothing, you begin to understand the broad sweep of this infection and the impact of its containment.

Most difficult to realize is that ringworm can reside on the hair of animals from a contaminated environment even when the animal itself is not showing any signs of infection. In nature, the incubation period for ringworm is between four days and four months -- a situation that renews continuously as the fungus passes from animal to animal.

How is ringworm diagnosed?

The name "ringworm" comes from the most common appearance of a circular area of hair loss and scaling, typically located on the face, ears, belly, feet and tail. Ringworm can cause infection of the toenails and nail beds. Lesions can be crusty.

An ultraviolet light, called a Wood's Lamp, is often used to diagnose ringworm. It produces a specific wavelength of light that causes the spores to fluoresce which enables detection. Direct microscopic examination of hair samples can also be used, but ultimately the only truly reliable way to diagnose ringworm is via a fungal culture, which can take up to a week to grow.

How is ringworm treated?

Animals can recover from ringworm. To just "wait out" the disease might be a choice in a single-pet household, but in a shelter environment the course of therapy can be stressful. Repeated clippings, shavings, dips and shampoos are recommended. Drugs are also used, sometimes with the possibility of toxic side effects.

Treatment and documentation of cure involves a minimum of six to eight weeks and may take as long as three to four months. Because infected animals must be isolated during treatment, the housing and socialization of these animals must be taken into consideration when deciding whether shelter treatment is practical.

Can you prevent ringworm?

There is currently no vaccine available that is protective against ringworm.

For a shelter, precautionary measures, such as examining each incoming animal, is of course highly recommended. Incoming animals should be housed separately for at least two weeks. Suspected animals should be immediately segregated from the general population and cleaning protocols instituted immediately to prevent further spreading.

More from our Videos archive: "Condoms for cats: Nurse Nancy finds putting them on a lot harder than neutering that pussy."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts