Hiking a favorite trail or playing at the park may seem like a safe way to spend the day, but you may not have noticed that patch of poison ivy your dog walked through. The question is, does poison ivy, oak or sumac affect dogs, and can they give it to us?
Humans and animals can suffer the same itchy fate when exposed skin makes contact with poison ivy, oak or sumac. These plants aren’t as likely to bother cats because their coat covers them completely. Dogs on the other hand, have exposed skin on their tummy and the inside area of their back legs. The oil from these plants can also sometimes work its way through a dog or cat’s coat to the skin, causing an itchy discomfort. If you weren’t aware your pet was in contact with one of these poison plants, you might think his scratching was due to fleas.
All three toxic plants contain an oily sap called urushiol, which causes an itchy rash and nasty blisters on the skin. Urushiol has to be absorbed through the skin before it can cause an allergic reaction. It takes longer for the oily resin to penetrate through thicker skin, which is why there can be a delay before there’s a reaction, or why it seems to spread. A rash and blisters are seen first where the skin is the thinnest, and appears on other areas as the toxin is absorbed through thicker skin. Fluid from broken blisters is not contagious and can’t infect other areas on the body because the urushiol that created the blister has already been absorbed.
If your dog or cat walks through a patch of poison ivy, oak or sumac and gets some of the resin on his coat, even if it doesn’t affect him, you can get the sap on you if he rubs against you or you pet him. Since dogs and cats are shorter, it’s very easy for them to get the oily sap on their ears, face or anywhere else on their body when hiking or just out running around in their own backyard.
Poison ivy, oak and sumac are fragile plants and are easy to break, which is how the oil is released. Urushiol is present in all parts of the plants. Dogs walking, rolling or running through a patch can get it on their tummy, on the underside of their back legs and on their coat. A reaction can be mild to severe.
We use calamine (Caladryl) lotion to ease our discomfort. However, it can be toxic to pets if they lick it because it has zinc oxide in it, so it’s not recommended for use on dogs and cats. It’s best to take your pet to the vet. He may need prescription medication to reduce inflammation and itching.
You can minimize the effects of the toxin on you or your pet by washing it off immediately with soap and warm water. The oily sap can’t produce a rash if it isn’t allowed to soak into the skin. It usually takes at least two washings (three is best), to get all of the urushiol washed off your pet. During and after the first washing, try not to let your pet shake because he can transfer some of the oil to you. Wear gloves, a long sleeve shirt and pants to lessen the chance of getting some of the oil on your skin. If you use a towel to dry your pet off, be sure to wash it before using it again. The toxin can be spread to you from clothing, shoes or tools that have been in contact with it.
Sometimes a dog or cat will eat some of the plant. As long as they don’t eat a lot, it’s usually not a problem, but some pets can have an adverse reaction. Watch for vomiting or diarrhea, and if you think your pet ate some poison ivy, oak or sumac and is having a reaction to it, call your vet as soon as possible.
From our perspective, poison ivy, oak and sumac are nuisance plants that can adversely affect our pets and us, but they are important for wildlife. Crows, bluebirds, turkeys, raccoons, rabbits and deer eat the berry-like fruit on the plant, and the Northern Cardinal and American Goldfinch use threads from the plant to build their nests. Your best protection is to learn how to identify each plant, and give them a wide berth when you see them.