• Nick Zacharias

Wild Parsnip – growing concern for people and pets


PHOTO BY NICK ZACHARIAS

This unfortunate Golden Retriever had a brush with Wild Parsnip on a trail in Hudson, and is suffering from multiple burns around her ears and face. With a lot of careful washing and topical treatments with raw honey, she’s on the slow road to recovery.

There’s a plant invader in Quebec and it should be on the radar of anyone who enjoys trail walking. It’s called Wild Parsnip, as if parsnips didn’t have enough detractors, and it delivers painful, blistering burns that can last weeks or even months.

Native to Europe and Asia, Pastinaca sativa is related to carrots and parsley and is thought to have been imported as a curiously risky-to-handle food source (yes, the root is actually edible). Now spread to the wild, it produces yellow flowers similar to Queen Anne’s Lace in size and shape. The plant’s sap is the problem; if a pet or an unwary flower enthusiast gets it on their skin, it creates extreme sensitivity to sunlight causing severe rashes and blisters. The plant is rampant in other parts of North America and spreading quickly here, as the seeds blow easily along cleared corridors like highways, railroads and trails.

Dogs are lousy botanists

While humans can steer clear of the plant, animals are not so lucky. Short of taking your pooch for a walk in a domed helmet like Laika the Soviet space dog, there isn’t much you can do to avoid it.

“Every year I see cases when the flowers bloom,” says Hudson veterinarian Dr. Bart Sikorski. “The only way to be completely sure to avoid it is to keep your dog away from trails and railways in the peak season from mid-August to October.”

PHOTO COURTESY SHUTTERSTOCK

Similar in appearance to the Queen Anne’s Lace that’s prevalent in area fields, the oily sap from its cousin Wild Parsnip creates photosensitivity that results in severe rashes and blisters on humans animals.

If you do head out on the trails and your dog encounters the plant, there are things you can do to mitigate the damage. First of all, as the reaction is driven by UV light exposure, get out of the sun. Because the toxin is in the oily sap, it must be washed thoroughly with lots of soap and water (both on your dog and any part of you that came in contact with it). If you manage to wash it all off quickly, you’ll likely come away scot free.

What to do if a burn sets in

Unlike Poison Ivy, the rash is extremely transferrable. Says Dr. Sikorski, “Longer haired dogs are a little more protected, but they are all susceptible, around the face especially. The rash takes two to four days to emerge. Once it appears it’s very important to wash them frequently as the toxin will be weeping out of the skin and can spread to other locations on the dog or to anyone handling them.”

It’s important to protect yourself with long sleeves and gloves, or at least a thorough cleaning, after washing a pet, “…especially older people or anyone with a suppressed immune system.”

Other things that can help with Wild Parsnip burns are topical treatments like Propolis (derived from beeswax) or direct application of raw, unpasteurized honey – both of which have healing and antibacterial properties. For dogs, a prophylactic course of antibiotics is also recommended as the open wounds are virtually guaranteed to lead to infection.

If wild parsnip appears in your yard, it can be dug up by the root (while wearing protective gear) and disposed of in a black garbage bag – burning or composting will only lead to further spread. Since eradication of the plant at large would be practically impossible, vigilance is key to safely enjoying the outdoors with your pet this fall.

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