What do you think about the problems encountered by an animal shelter that has resulted in the death of many cats and dogs? It's a question that I'm sure many veterinarians have been asked recently. In fact, it's a question I myself asked of a colleague who I have worked with for the past year and who has a unique perspective on the question. Blanaid Donnelly is a 2009 graduate of the Ontario Veterinary College. In addition to her part time work in companion animal practice, she has been doing graduate studies for a Master's degree in Public Health in the Department of Population Medicine at the University of Guelph. I want to thank Dr. Donnelly for her answer to my question that has resulted in the first Pet Tales column by a guest columnist.

When I was given the opportunity to write about the current ringworm outbreak in a Newmarket animal shelter, I was excited by the challenge. Zoonotic diseases are diseases that are transmitted between people and animals and a topic that I'm particularly passionate about. But, this current issue is about more than that.

Firstly, what is it? Despite the name, ringworm isn't a worm at all! It's a fungus of the skin that forms ring-shaped lesions or sores. The hair falls out and the skin becomes dry and flaky in the affected area. It's not usually itchy and happens most often on the head, face or ears but can occur anywhere on the body.

Who is affected? This disease is highly contagious and can be transmitted between dogs, cats and people in addition to other animals. It does happen more commonly in cats (particularly Persians but also dog breeds such as Yorkies and Jack Russel Terriers). Ringworm can be difficult to diagnose in long haired cats because the "rings" are hidden under the fur.

How do we treat it? Before treating, we have to do confirmatory testing. The best available test or Gold Standard, is a fungal culture which involves growing the fungus from a hair sample. Treatment is a combination of topical and oral therapies which are expensive and can take weeks or months to be successful. Animals do not incur resistance to ringworm and so infection can recur. Disinfecting the environment in which the animal resides is crucial as the fungus can continue to survive in the area.

Despite all of this, we have to get back to basics. The main thing that we learn in population health is that no matter what species we're dealing with, we need to get to the root of the problem and prevent it from happening again.

The real problem here is population control. Would this issue have reached this level if there weren't so many animals in shelters? Most likely not. And how do these animals get there? At our clinic we see litter upon litter of unwanted kittens because people don't want to deal with spaying and neutering their pets. Dogs are surrendered everyday because owners don't take the time to figure out what breed of dog would be best suited to their lifestyle. They end up with puppies that are adorable but that do not mesh with their schedules or family dynamics. Not to mention parents who adopt cats without making sure that their kids aren't allergic. There are always exceptions to the rule but are we really doing all we can to avoid the pet population control problem?

Right now, there is an outbreak that needs to be controlled and I for one do not envy the veterinarians who had to make the extremely difficult and necessary decision to euthanize hundreds of animals. So, what can we do? Well, as animal lovers we can do our best to support animal shelters. But above all, please, please spay and neuter your pets. Past Pet Tales can be found at www.baycitiesanimalhospital.ca