Visiting Vet: Do dogs get poison ivy?

Fido isn’t allergic to it, but he could pass it to you.


I dragged the hose across the yard in a halfhearted attempt to start cleaning out our long-neglected shed. Critters have chewed holes in the roof and floor, and made nests in the open bags of grass seed and potting soil. I looked down at my flip-flopped feet as I trekked through the brush. I should be more careful about tick exposure, I thought. And bees. And yellow jackets. I’m allergic to wasps and hornets, and my (expired) EpiPen was somewhere in the house. I need to replace that, I sighed. Temporarily frozen in my tracks by this cascade of worries, I looked down again. I was standing in a patch of poison ivy.

Ubiquitous throughout most of the U.S., Toxicodendron radicans is abundant here on the Vineyard. It can grow as a vine, a small shrub, or ground cover, displaying the classic three-leaf pattern. The edges of the leaves can be smooth or serrated, and can vary in color depending on the season. In the winter, it may have pale, greenish-white flowers and whitish berries. The leaves, stems, and roots of poison ivy contain an oily resin called urushiol.

When people get urushiol on their skin, they may develop an allergic reaction called contact dermatitis, with redness, itching, and blistering. According to the American Skin Association, about 85 percent of people are allergic to poison ivy, as well as poison sumac and poison oak, and about 10 to 15 percent are extremely allergic. You know who you are. Although I am lucky that I am not particularly sensitive to urushiol, I occasionally get a mild rash from it, so I hotfooted it out of the poison ivy patch. Our dog, Quinna, was less concerned. She lay down in the middle of the foliage and started happily rolling around. Which leads us to a common question we get this time of year: “Do dogs get poison ivy?”

First of all, dogs are protected from many types of contact allergic dermatitis by their fur. But even on areas with exposed skin, like the belly and groin, even in short-coated or hairless breeds, even when they roll in it like my silly pup, dogs simply are not allergic to urushiol. Most veterinary dermatologists say they have never seen a proven case of poison ivy allergy in a dog, though some other plants, including Asian jasmine and wandering Jew plant have been documented to cause contact dermatitis in dogs occasionally. I tried to do a deep dive into the veterinary literature, and could not come up with a single documented instance of canine poison ivy allergy. That said, I suppose we should keep an open mind, as it is not impossible that some dog somewhere is allergic to urushiol. But the old medical adage probably holds true: When you hear hoofbeats, don’t look for zebras. If your dog has a skin rash, it is almost certainly some other medical condition. Inhalant allergies, food allergies, bacterial infections, fungal infections, even autoimmune diseases can cause skin lesions owners may misconstrue as poison ivy.

So the short answer to the question, “Do dogs get poison ivy?” is essentially no. The bigger problem is that people can and do get poison ivy from their dogs. Or more correctly, people can get allergic contact dermatitis by being exposed to urushiol oil that is on their dogs’ fur. When Quinna rolls in the ivy, then runs over and rubs against my legs, she is transferring the oil to my skin. Thanks, puppy. Think of it like this: Imagine all poison ivy is covered in perpetual wet paint. Anything that touches the wet paint and then touches you transfers that paint to your skin. Tools, sports equipment, gardening implements, pets — they can all convey the oil from the plant to your skin. Remember that the rash itself is not contagious, nor can it spread. When lesions appear to expand, it is just the allergic reaction manifesting in additional areas that were exposed to the oil.

I can’t give human medical advice. What I can do is tell you that you can remove the urushiol from your dog’s coat by bathing. You have to do this fairly soon after exposure, perhaps within 15 minutes, according to some sources, as apparently the urushiol can bind to the keratin of the fur, making it harder to remove. Wear nice long rubber gloves to protect your skin. Remember urushiol is an oily resin. So think oil-based paint, not latex. Wait! Stop! Please don’t use paint thinner on your dog! Keep reading. You can use Dawn dishwashing soap because of its grease-cutting ability. When I was in veterinary school, I volunteered with Tri-State Bird Rescue, bathing and rehabbing birds caught in oil spills. Dawn dishwashing soap was the only product we used for cleaning these poor birds, because of its excellent grease-cutting properties. (You don’t need the antibacterial version. Just plain old original Dawn.) You can also use the human product Tecnu, but dish soap is cheaper. Tecnu’s website does say it is safe to use on dogs, cats, and horses, but that you should wash it off completely afterward. Whichever product you use, suds up your dog well. Avoid getting water in her eyes or ears. Then rinse well and towel dry. Remember to also wash her collar if possible, as that urushiol oil can stick around on such surfaces for a very long time.

What about if your dog ingests poison ivy? Toxicologists say this may lead to an upset stomach with vomiting and/or diarrhea. You may also find articles saying that dogs can occasionally get contact dermatitis from poison ivy. As far as I can determine, there is no scientific evidence to support this. It doesn’t really matter. If your dog has an itchy rash, you should consult your veterinarian. If your dog rolls in the poison ivy patch, you might want to bathe her, simply to minimize your own exposure. Now I have to go put on shoes.