By Maura McAndrew
In the summertime, you and your pets likely enjoy more time outdoors—playing in the yard, taking hikes, or going on camping or fishing excursions. While these activities are fun for all, there are hazards to watch out for, including poisonous plants like poison ivy, oak, and sumac. These common plants can cause allergic reactions in dogs, cats, and humans alike. To make sure you’re aware and prepared, we spoke with some experts about how these plants can affect your pet’s health, and what to do if you and your pet get exposed.
How to Spot Poison Ivy, Oak, and Sumac
The first step to protecting yourself from poison ivy, oak, and sumac is identifying where these plants are found and how to spot them. Most people have seen poison ivy, which grows everywhere in the United States, except Alaska, Hawaii, and some parts of the West Coast.
Though poison ivy can, unfortunately, grow in almost any conditions, it’s fairly easy to identify by its sets of three shiny leaflets (perhaps you’ve heard the rhyme: “leaves of three, let them be”). Poison ivy is a danger because it crops up in unexpected areas, like new residential developments or the outskirts of cities, explains Dr. Lynn Hovda, director of veterinary services for the Pet Poison Helpline. “The problem that we have is that…people are moving out into rural areas, they’re walking along ditches with their dogs, and they’re going to some spots that people haven’t cleared,” she says.
Like poison ivy, poison oak also grows in “leaves of three.” The FDA describes this plant as “fuzzy” with green, rounded “lobed or deeply toothed” leaves, and it sometimes has whitish-yellow berries. It grows as a “low shrub” in the Eastern and Southern parts of the country, but it can also pop up on the Pacific Coast in the form of taller bunches or long vines.
Poison sumac is found mainly in bogs or swampy areas in the Midwest, Southeast, and Northeast—so you’ll want to keep your eyes peeled for it if you’re near a body of water. Unfortunately, poison sumac lacks the conveniently uniform appearance of poison ivy—the FDA describes poison sumac as a tree or small shrub with “clusters of 7-13 smooth-edged leaflets.” In the summer, these leaves are green, sometimes with yellow-green flowers or greenish-white fruits.
Symptoms of Poison Ivy, Oak, or Sumac Reactions in Pets
While you can do your best to avoid these plants, if you live in an area where they are common, your pet may end up coming into contact with them. As those of us who have been exposed to poison ivy, oak, or sumac know, it’s no joke: it can cause an extremely itchy rash and blistering. But our pets have an advantage we don’t have: a fur coat. “The toxin, which is urushiol, can get on the fur coat, but it’s not harmful until it gets on actual skin itself,” Hovda explains. Meaning, that if pets brush up against or even roll in these plants, they probably won’t have any reaction.
On the rare chance your pet does have a reaction, there’s still no reason to panic. “Honestly, it’s not that big of a problem in pets compared to humans,” notes Dr. Justine Lee, a board-certified veterinary specialist who works as a criticalist at the Animal Emergency and Referral Center of Minnesota. It will most likely affect an area with minimal fur, and hairless or shorthaired dogs and cats are more at risk, she explains. Usually, it will look similar to the rash that humans experience. “The biggest thing would be looking out for redness in hairless areas,” says Lee, who is also a consultant for the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center.
Hovda adds that, “it may start as a red bump, become itchy, and then actually go to blisters with clear fluid inside. Really, it’s kind of an acute contact dermatitis [an inflammation of the skin].”
But what if your pet is an equal-opportunity omnivore, and one day decides that poison ivy is delicious? Not to worry: a pet who ingests poison ivy, oak, or sumac will only face minor consequences, if any. “As a toxicologist and a specialist, I would not induce vomiting in that situation [if pets ingest these plants],” Lee says. “Thankfully, it probably just results in some mild irritation to the intestinal tract,” which can cause a bit of vomiting or diarrhea.
Preventing Spread of Poison Plant Oils from Pet to Human
According to our experts, the biggest concern with pets and poison ivy, oak, or sumac is not what happens to our pets, so much as the possibility that they can act as carriers, passing the plant oils in question to their human caretakers. “The oils that get on the fur coat can be transferred to human beings, who may pet their dog, or have contact in some manner [with] their skin,” Hovda says. “So pet owners need to be pretty careful if they’ve been out hiking or biking with their pets through the woods where there’s poison ivy or poison sumac, then petting their animal afterwards, or cuddling with it in the car, or letting it sit in their lap.”
Human exposure to these plants can result in rashes that last for weeks, and in extreme cases, swelling and potential breathing issues, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. For this reason, it’s a good idea to take preventative steps so you or your family members don’t get exposed via your pets. One good practice is to towel off your pet after hikes, mountain bike rides, or camping trips. “If your pet walks through poison ivy, pull them out of it, use a damp terrycloth towel, and wipe them down,” Lee says, and Hovda adds that it’s best to wear rubber or latex gloves while doing so. Because the plants’ oils are the issue, wiping these from your pet’s coat should be enough to prevent exposure.
That said, the best way to get rid of any urushiol oil on your pet is to give him a bath—what Lee calls “dermal decontamination.” “The absolute best thing you can do to minimize any of the toxin is bathing them with mild soap and warm water—de-greasing soap, like Dawn dish soap, which will take off the oil,” Hovda says. “Typically, we recommend that you bathe the dog and rinse well, then bathe it and rinse well again.” She adds that when bathing your pet, you’ll need to keep those rubber gloves on—and do your best to avoid getting splashed. If the pet in question is a bath-averse cat, Lee stresses that “you can always bring them to the vet, and we can bathe them much less traumatically.” Just be sure that if you need to carry your cat, you wear long sleeves and wrap him in a towel.
Treating Poison Plant Rashes in Pets
The worst-case scenario regarding pets and poison ivy, oak, or sumac is a rash—one that can be easily treated and should heal with time. If you notice the aforementioned redness or blisters on your pet, the first step is to get him into the tub, both to remove any remaining oil and to soothe his inflamed skin. In addition to Dawn dish soap—recommended by both of our experts for removing plant oil—“you can bathe them with a colloidal oatmeal shampoo that they have specifically for dogs and cats,” Lee advises, which acts to relieve itchiness and irritation.
After a bath comes the waiting game—just sit tight and monitor your pet. “If they are showing signs of itchiness after you bathe them, you can always use a topical hydrocortisone cream,” Lee says, however, she advises consulting a veterinarian or calling a poison control center (like the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center or the Pet Poison Helpline) before using topical medications, to ensure they won’t be dangerous if ingested. “A lot of people will put the wrong topical medication on,” she says, giving the example of triple antibiotic ointment, which can cause an anaphylactic reaction in cats.
With a soothing bath and possibly a veterinarian-approved topical treatment, your pet’s rash should heal quickly. But if scratching and irritation persists, it might be time to pay the vet a visit. “We don’t worry too much about it, unless they get a pretty nasty contact dermatitis,” Hovda says, noting that if your pet seems uncomfortable and is scratching through the night, he should see a professional. Lee agrees, adding that persistent scratching can keep the skin raw, possibly leading to infection. “If it does end up becoming raw, or a moist dermatitis or hot spot, then they should definitely get to a vet,” she says.
But as both of our experts emphasize, a little poison ivy, oak, or sumac exposure is not dire for pets. So go have fun outdoors—just be vigilant about protecting yourself and your family. “Humans who are super-sensitive to it can definitely get it off their pet,” Lee says, “so you do want to be really careful.”