Ringworm is one of the most common skin conditions found in horses, causing flaky, dry patches of skin and hair loss across the body. Whilst it is not life threatening, it is contagious to both horses and humans so it's vital to recognise and treat it as quickly as possible.
What is ringworm?
Despite its name, ringworm is not actually a worm but a type of skin fungus. The medical term is dermatophytosis, which includes infection by one of two fungi; Trichophyton and Microsporum.
Ringworm is easily transferred between animals, either through direct contact or via shared equipment such as brushes and rugs. The spores can even hibernate in wooden stables and fences for years before coming into contact with an animal to infect.
Ringworm feeds on a horse's hair and dead skin cells, causing hair loss and dry, flaky patches of skin which can appear grey. The patches may be “ring” shaped, but can be any shape or size, and occur anywhere on your horse's body. They most commonly appear at points around the face and torso where riding equipment can rub and irritate the skin.
Horses with a weaker immune system, such as very young or very old horses, are more susceptible to ringworm. They will normally display more severe symptoms, and it will take longer for them to return to full health.
What are the symptoms of ringworm in horses?
Ringworm is not the easiest condition to diagnose, and symptoms may not show themselves for up to three weeks after a horse has become infected.
The first sign you may notice is raised patches of skin appearing under your horse's coat. This may be nothing to worry about as it could be caused by many factors, but you should contact your vet as soon as possible if you notice:
- Your horse's coat looks course and unkempt
- Several unexplained raised patches of skin
- Patchy hair loss
- Dry, flaky skin which eventually appears grey
- Your horse seems agitated and the patches are clearly causing him discomfort
These symptoms are very similar to those caused by other skin conditions such as rain scald, so your vet may need to analyse samples of the fungus in a laboratory in order to give a firm diagnosis. Although ringworm can clear up on its own, in animals with weaker immune systems it can worsen and cause the skin to become blistered, irritated and painful. Cracks can appear in the skin, become infected and require antibiotic treatment so its best to treat the infection as soon as you see it.
Can ringworm be passed to humans?
Yes, ringworm is one of the few conditions that can be passed from horses to humans. It isn't as easy for a human to catch as it is for a fellow horse, but if you do notice any unexplained rashes on your body after contact with an infected horse, seek advice from your GP as soon as possible.
How do you prevent ringworm spreading to other horses?
Ringworm spreads remarkably quickly amongst horses in a paddock. If one horse is infected, or you suspect he might be, take immediate action to protect other horses and pets.
- Isolate the infected horse as soon as possible
- Do not use grooming products, riding equipment or rugs that have come into contact with the infected horse on other animals. Girths and tack are particularly good at harbouring the spores as when warm and sweaty they provide the perfect environment for ringworm to thrive
- Check all other horses, ponies and donkeys thoroughly for early signs of ringworm
- Seek treatment for the infected horse as soon as possible, and keep him isolated until your vet advises he is no longer contagious
Even after the infection has passed, you will need to treat any clothes, equipment, or products which came into contact with ringworm with strong disinfectant. This includes concrete floors and wooden stable walls where the fungus spores can stay dormant for years.
How is ringworm treated?
Ringworm will usually clear on its own within a few weeks, but due to its contagious nature it's best to treat it quickly to reduce the risk to other animals.
An experienced vet will usually be able to recognise ringworm from the patches on your horse's skin. However, they will need to send a sample of the fungus (usually in the form of a tuft of hair) to a laboratory for analysis in order to confirm the diagnosis.
Luckily, ringworm is one of the few conditions in which it is safe to begin treatment even if ringworm is only suspected, so your vet may provide you with an anti-fungal skin wash or food powder to begin treatment before lab results have been returned.
Treating the fungus
To treat ringworm, you will need to remove both the fungus itself from your horse, and the spores from his environment. Treatment of the skin lesions is usually done with an anti-fungal shampoo or ointment which you typically need to apply daily until the condition improves.
It is wise to clip the hair surrounding the sores to remove any spores that are attached before treating the area. After carefully applying the anti-fungal treatment as directed, ensure the area is dried thoroughly with a towel or hair drier.
Treating the spores
It is vital to also disinfect your horse's living area, rugs, buckets, grooming equipment, saddles, girths and tacks, and anything else he has been in contact with, to remove any remaining spores. This includes the clothes and gloves you wear when treating him.
As long as you keep your horse isolated, refrain from riding him (so tack doesn’t rub the sores), and keep applying daily anti-fungal treatments he should show improvement within 1-2 weeks. You will notice the skin condition returning to normal, and hair will soon begin to regrow.
Whilst ringworm may seem like a lot of effort to deal with, it is some comfort to know that once your horse has encountered ringworm, he is likely to develop a strong immunity to the infection, reducing the chances of the fungus returning.
Treating your horse for any illness can become expensive, especially if your horse is very young or older with a weak immune system. You can consider your health insurance options on our compare horse insurance page to protect you financially so you can keep your horse it tip-top condition.