By now we’ve all heard about the damage too much sun exposure can do to our skin. But did you know that despite their furry coats, pets are also at risk for sunburn?
Protecting pets from sunburn not only safeguards their skin, it also reduces their chance of developing skin cancer. In humans and pets alike, too much sun exposure causes an inflammatory reaction in the skin, and these reactions over the course of a lifetime can greatly increase the risk of skin cancer. In dogs and cats, areas where the hair is thinner or where skin is exposed (like the tips of the ears, lips, nose, eyelids, and belly) are very susceptible to sun damage and are common places for skin cancer to develop.
Pets, Sun, And Skin Cancer
The sun gives off 2 different types of ultraviolet rays: UVB rays cause sunburns, and UVA rays lead to premature skin aging and skin cancer. Both dogs and cats can develop skin cancer. The most common forms that result from sun exposure in pets are also the same skin cancers found in humans: squamous cell carcinoma and melanoma.
Squamous cell carcinoma in pets is usually found on the face, nose, and tips of the ears. It can often be successfully treated with surgery or radiation if found early enough. Melanoma can be found anywhere on the body, but often shows up in the mouth or between the toes, especially in dogs. It can be more serious than squamous cell cancer since it has a tendency to spread to other parts of the body.
Risk Factors For Sunburn In Pets
Although any dog or cat can suffer from sunburn, there are factors that increase the risk. Pets at a higher risk of sunburn include:
- Hairless breeds, such as Sphynx cats and Mexican Hairless or Chinese Crested dogs. Certain dog breeds that also seem to be more sensitive to the sun include Dalmatians, Beagles, Bulldogs, Whippets, Basset Hounds, Boxers, Bull Terriers, American Staffordshire Terriers, German Shorthaired Pointers, and Dogo Argentinos.
- White or very light-colored dogs and cats.
- Pets who spend extended periods of time outside.
- Pets who live in areas that are very sunny (like the desert Southwest), or in locations at higher altitudes.
- Dogs who like to sleep outside on their backs with their bellies and inner thighs exposed.
- Pets with chronic medical conditions, such as allergies, hormone imbalances, and skin conditions. Parasitic infections can also thin out the hair coat and increase the risk of sunburn.
- Dogs or cats who have recently been clipped or shaved, either for grooming purposes or due to a recent medical procedure.
- Pets with extensive scar tissue from prior injuries or surgeries.
- Dogs or cats who have recently undergone chemotherapy treatment.
Protecting Pets From Sunburn
When it comes to protecting pets from sunburn, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Of course, the best way to prevent sunburn in pets is to keep them out of the sun. However, since this is not always practical, here are a few steps you can take to lower the risk.
Apply a Sunscreen Made Especially For Dogs
Human sunscreens contain ingredients such as PABA and zinc oxide, which can be extremely toxic to dogs. Additionally, almost all sunscreens contain a certain amount of an ingredient called “salicylate”, which is extremely toxic to cats – and exposure to salicylates can be fatal in cats. Therefore, never use a sunscreen product on your cat (even one made for pets) unless advised by your veterinarian and you are certain that it does not contain salicylates.
Fortunately, there are dog-safe sunscreen products available in the form of creams, wipes, sticks, and misting sprays. Be sure to select a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays, is waterproof, and has an SPF of 15 or 30. (EpiPet and Petkin both make veterinary-approved sunscreen products, and EpiPet products are also approved by the FDA.)
When using a sunscreen on your dog, remember to cover areas that are most vulnerable to sun damage, such as the nose, belly, ears, and groin (avoid the eyes and mouth). Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes prior to sun exposure.
Keep Pets Indoors During Peak Sun Hours
The hours when the sun’s rays are most intense are between 10:00am and 3:00pm. Keep in mind this is not necessarily the hottest time of the day, so although it may feel cooler in the mid-morning, your pet can still become burned. If your dog or cat enjoys spending time in the backyard, make sure there is shade available for them when they need it.
For outdoor pet-friendly areas (such as catios or exercise runs), consider using sunscreen covers, which act like giant umbrellas to block the sun’s rays.
Use Sun Protection Shirts
These are shirts designed for both dogs and cats that actually block UV radiation. They are similar to bodysuits, so they fit snugly, but are stretchy and comfortable. Look for shirts with at least 30+ UPF (ultraviolet protection factor).
These shirts are perfect for dogs who visit the beach, since they also protect the dog’s underside from light rays reflected upward by water or sand.
Don’t Shave Your Pet/Trim Their Coats Too Short During Summer
Although it’s tempting to give your dog or cat a “Summer Cut” when the weather gets warmer, remember that fur is one of the best protectors from the sun. Instead of shaving, try thinning out your pet’s coat by using an undercoat rake or Furminator, which are very effective at removing excess hair.
Don’t Forget To Protect The Eyes
Since the eyes are particularly vulnerable to UV damage (and also a common spot for melanoma to occur), if your dog will tolerate them, consider the use of doggie sunglasses. “Doggles”, which are shatterproof, wraparound sunglasses with UV protection, are created just for dogs to protect the cornea of the eye from the sun’s damaging radiation.
Consider Modifications To Your Environment
If you live in an area where the sun is strong, and you want to reduce incidental sun exposure, you can take the additional step of fitting the windows of your home with solar screens, which help block UV light from entering. You can also use tinted window film on your home and car windows for additional protection.
How Do You Know If Your Pet Is Sunburned?
Of course, in an ideal world our pets would never become sunburned. However, excess sun exposure happens, so it’s important to recognize the signs of sunburn.
Sunburn in pets can look very similar to a first-degree burn in humans. The skin will be red, inflamed, itchy, and may appear scaly. There might also be some hair loss. The skin may feel hot to the touch, and may be painful for the pet when touched.
The pet may also be scratching at the area and whimpering. If the sunburn occurs on the tips of the ears, the skin may actually appear to be cracking or curling. Pets with severe sunburns can also run slight fevers.
Treating Sunburn In Dogs And Cats
If your pet becomes sunburned, it’s important to take immediate action.
- Bring the pet inside immediately. If shelter is not available, move them to a completely shaded area.
- Apply a cold compress to the burned skin to ease the sting, soothe inflammation, and keep the skin moist.
- Call your veterinarian right away before taking any other action, as prompt medical intervention can minimize damage.
Even if you think the burn is minor, sunburn can make pets more more vulnerable to secondary bacterial infections. Your veterinarian can recommend an appropriate course of treatment, which may include shaving and cleaning the area, using safe, non-toxic topical gels, creams or ointments, administering cortisone to reduce inflammation, or prescribing antibiotics to prevent skin infection.
Awareness Is Key
Although it may not be something that many pet parents think about, preventing sunburn in pets is critical to both their comfort and their health. Since sunburn in dogs and cats may not be immediately visible due to their hair coats, it’s important to monitor their sun exposure and check them for sunburn if they’ve spent a prolonged period outside.
Also, it’s a good idea to check your dog’s or cat’s skin periodically for anything that looks unusual. Red, crusty, or inflamed looking areas, or sores that won’t heal (especially on the face, belly, and ears) could be an early indication of skin cancer, so be sure to bring them to the attention of your veterinarian as soon as possible.
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Has your dog or cat ever experienced a sunburn? Please tell us about it in the comments below!