Pets' fur can spread poison ivy to people, and so can the things pet fur touches

Q: We discovered poison ivy in our woods. If our cats and dogs touch it, can it cause them problems? What if they rub up against us humans?

A: Neither cats nor dogs suffer from poison ivy rash, but their coats easily transfer the oil in poison ivy, poison oak and poison sumac to humans. This oil, called urushiol, causes the common poison ivy rash in people who are sensitive to it.

I learned that the hard way when my golden retriever Sam snuggled against me after he came into contact with poison ivy that had invaded our backyard without my knowledge. My face, neck and arms broke out in the red, itchy rash typical of poison ivy.

Since then, I've learned that urushiol persists for years on surfaces, including clothing, furniture and anywhere else our pets settle. So, your pets can transfer the oil to you directly, as Sam did to me, or indirectly, by leaving the oil on other surfaces you eventually touch.

I dealt with the problem by using an herbicide to kill the poison ivy in my yard. Don't burn it or shred it with a weed-eating string trimmer because you'll scatter the oil into the air and give yourself and others the worst poison ivy rash you can imagine.

Another option is to bathe your pets with pet shampoo or Dawn dishwashing liquid each time they come inside. If your cats won't tolerate that, clean them with pet wipes or accustom them to living indoors.

Some people wipe their pets with Tecnu to remove the urushiol and then shampoo them to remove the Tecnu. See for instructions.

Until your yard is free of poison ivy, wash your hands with Fels Naptha laundry bar soap, Dawn or a detergent and cold water immediately after petting your cats and dogs. Washing with hot water opens your pores, allowing the urushiol to penetrate the skin faster. The skin absorbs urushiol within minutes, and once it's absorbed, you can no longer wash it off.

If you take these precautions into account, I hope you'll be spared the dreadful poison ivy rash Sam gave me.

Q: I recently adopted a mixed-breed dog named Bear. When I told the veterinarian I was feeding him a grain-free diet, she advised me to switch to dog food with grain. She said grain-free diets from small and boutique manufacturers are associated with heart failure. Please tell me more.

A: Your veterinarian has given you good advice, and I hope you follow it. Let me explain what's behind her recommendation.

Dilated cardiomyopathy, or DCM, is a common heart (cardio-) muscle (-myo-) disease (-pathy). In a dog with this disease, the muscular walls of the heart become weak and the heart enlarges. As the disease progresses, the heart loses its ability to pump blood effectively, a condition called heart failure.

Dilated cardiomyopathy has many causes and is inherited in some breeds. However, in 2018, cardiologists started seeing the condition in other breeds, all dogs that ate grain-free diets from small manufacturers. These diets contained peas, lentils, potatoes and similar carbohydrates in place of grain.

That year, the Food and Drug Administration warned the public and began to collect accounts of dilated cardiomyopathy in dogs. In 2019, they reported that almost half the dogs with the disease were eating one of three grain-free diets: Acana, Zignature or Taste of the Wild. The remainder were eating one of 13 other grain-free dog foods.

It's not clear yet whether the cause is a harmful substance in one or more of the grain substitutes or the absence of an important nutrient usually supplied by grains.

Still, the association between grain-free diets and dilated cardiomyopathy is clear, and it's supported by the observation that the disease that develops in dogs fed a grain-free diet can be partially reversed by feeding a diet that contains grain.

Grains, which dogs easily digest, contain many important nutrients. Moreover, dogs are rarely allergic to grains. If you follow your veterinarian's recommendation to transition Bear from a grain-free diet to one with grain, you'll help keep him healthy.

Lee Pickett, VMD, practices companion animal medicine in North Carolina. Contact her at

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