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Advice From Dr. Chris: Can Dogs Get Sunburned?

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Authored By: Chris Vanderhoof DVM, MPH 

Summer is fast approaching and with that the promise of some lazy afternoons in the sun with your dog on walks, at the park, or wherever your favorite place is.

But with those warm sunny days may come some risk of sun exposure as well. Just like us, dogs can be at risk for sunburn and other complications from sun exposure. 

What Dogs are at Risk of Sunburn?

It’s possible for any dog to get sunburn, even if it’s just in a small area (we’ll go over those areas next) but there are some dogs more predisposed. Hairless breeds of dogs, like the Chinese Crested, or the American Hairless Terrier have very tender and sensitive skin.

Similarly, any dog with a sparse or thin haircoat will have more exposure of the underlying skin and be more prone to burning. Breeds like Staffordshire Terriers and Bulldogs have thinner hair that provides less sun protection compared to, say, the silky locks of a Golden Retriever or the thick coat of an American Eskimo Dog.

Dogs with lightly pigmented skin, seen often with white or light-coated breeds, are going to be more sensitive to the sun’s rays. If your dog has tan or “pink” skin under their fur, even if the hair coat is longer, your pup can be at risk.

But even dogs with generally darker or thicker coats and dark pigmented skin can be at risk too. If your pup has any lighter pigmented areas, like the tips of the ears, the nose, one or more eyelids, etc., these small areas can be at risk for burns. And if your dog is the type that likes to lay out and stretch herself out in the sun, watch out for a fair-skinned, pink tummy, groin, and armpits, as places of concern.

What Can Sunburn Do to Dogs? 

Just like with us, prolonged sun exposure without the right kind of protection can lead to 1st or even 2nd degree burns on the skin. 

As many of us know, sunburn can be irritating and itchy at the least, but certainly painful in worse cases. If a dog encounters a painful or irritating area on the skin, his first inclination is often to lick or chew at the area, hoping to make it feel better.

Unfortunately, licking or chewing can more often lead to further irritation, secondary infections from the broken irritated skin, and more complications. 

Sunburn can also contribute to certain types of skin cancer. Like in people, this is usually over a longer period of time of prolonged sun exposure. The most common types of skin cancer seen that could result from sun exposure include squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, and hemangioma. 

Treating these cancers often involves advanced medical care, like surgical removal of tumors, radiation, and/or chemotherapy. 

Fortunately, skin cancers often take years to develop, allowing for plenty of time to start proactive prevention strategies while a pup is still very young. 

What Can Be Done to Prevent Sunburn in Dogs? 

Keep Outdoor Activity Limited When the Sun is Hot

One of the simplest ways to be proactive in preventing sunburn is to be aware of how hot the sun will be that day. Don’t forget that cloud cover alone does not prevent the sun’s rays from causing burns. 

Generally, you want to avoid as much outdoor activity as possible in the middle of the day, when the sun is at its zenith in the sky. Keeping most of your outdoor activity, like long walks, jogs, dog park visits, etc. to before 10am and after 4pm is a good rule of thumb.

Use Sunscreen!

Using sunscreen on dogs might sound a little problematic. After all, most of our furry friends are just that–furry. However, if you have one of the hairless breeds, like a Chinese Crested, it’s important to be aware that their skin requires very special care. This includes using sunscreen.

And if you have a dog that appears to have plenty of fur, keep a close eye on those problem tender areas, like the tips of ears, the nose, eyelids, the belly, and armpits. If your furry Golden likes to lay out on the deck for a couple of hours in the afternoon, using sunscreen on that tummy is worth considering. 

Always make sure to use a sunscreen developed specifically for dogs, looking for at least an SPF of 30. Avoid using any sunscreens containing zinc or PABA, as these can be toxic if a dog licks the lotion off. If you cannot find a dog sunscreen, you can use a sunscreen approved for infants that does not include those ingredients. 

Get Fashionable with UV-Blocking Clothes

If your pup has a thin coat of fur that is too thick for sunscreen application but still thin enough that sunburn is a possible concern, take a look at the many choices out there for sun protection clothing. 

These clothes are typically lightweight, breathable, and easily fasten with velcro attachments. Your pup can still move and be as active as normal without getting overheated while still staying safe from those harmful UV rays. 

Keep to the Shade

If you’re going on an outing with your dog where you’ll be spending a lot of time outdoors, especially at hotter parts of the day, always seek out an area that has plenty of shade. This isn’t just important for preventing sunburn, but it’s also a crucial step to avoid heat exhaustion and heat stroke. Heat stroke can be deadly and can occur more easily than many folks realize. 

Other tips to avoid heat stroke include making sure your dog has plenty of fresh water available and knowing when to set limits on outdoor play activities, especially when the temperature is over 65-70 degrees and any degree of humidity is present.

Going to the beach or somewhere that has no natural shade? There are great little “pup tents” that are inexpensive and easy to set up so that you can bring some shade with you. The cot canopies are especially good for providing a bed off the ground so that there is better ventilation. 

One form of shade to never resort to is to leave your dog in the car. Temperatures within a vehicle, even with the windows open, can reach dangerous levels leading to heat stroke for a dog left unattended. The hotter the temperature outside, the shorter the time it takes. 

A good rule of thumb is to simply avoid leaving your dog in the car if the temperature outside exceeds 60 degrees F. Whatever the temperature is outside, the temp inside the car can be 20 degrees hotter in as little as 10-15 minutes. Even a “short” errand to run inside the grocery store with a pup left behind can lead to a real problem. 

Shield Windows from UV Light

The outdoors aren’t the only place dogs can get sunburn. UV rays can easily penetrate regular glass windows, so if your dog likes to bask in the sunny window for hours during the day, sunburn can also be a risk within the home as well. 

Don’t want to pull all the shades down? Specially designed window films can be applied over a regular glass window surface that can allow for sunlight while still blocking those harmful UV rays. There are many affordable options, commonly blocking almost 100% of UV radiation. 

I Think My Dog Already Has Sunburn: What Do I Do?

If you think your dog might have a minor sunburn, showing as a red, possibly flaky area of the skin, make sure to move your pup indoors. Applying a cool, damp washcloth can provide some soothing comfort. 

Your dog will likely be inclined to lick any irritated area, so it is always helpful to have an Elizabethan collar around. While it has the bad connotation as the “cone of shame”, the Elizabethan collar is a very effective way to keep a dog from licking or chewing an area of the body as well as rubbing or pawing an area on the head or face.

These can be purchased at most pet stores. The biggest mistake many pup parents make is not getting one that is long enough. If the collar does not extend past your dog’s nose, it may not provide good protection, especially for the groin, hind legs, and tail. 

Alternatively, if the affected area is on the tummy, armpits, or groin, a shirt designed for dogs, much like the sun protection clothing already mentioned, may keep your pup from reaching the area. 

Some topical ointments or sprays intended for dogs containing ingredients like aloe, may be safe to use for minor burns or irritations. When used along with an Elizabethan collar or keeping the area covered with clothing if appropriate, topical sprays or ointments can be safe as long as they cannot be licked off.

Lastly, there are other conditions that cause red, irritated, and flaky skin that are not sunburns at all. This includes conditions like skin infections and allergic sensitivities. If your pup has any kind of rash persisting for more than 24 hours or if it is not responding well to simple care, it is always best to schedule an appointment with your veterinarian. Any skin irritations or burns that are causing a significant amount of discomfort should always be checked out as soon as possible. 

Remembering Sun Safety This Summer

Just about everyone loves having fun outside when the sun is shining and the temperatures are balmy. But just like you wouldn’t (hopefully) forget to apply your sunscreen or wear a hat to provide some protection from the sun, you should always keep your pup’s sun safety needs in mind as well. 

And while heat stroke is a serious concern to be very mindful of this summer too, remember that sunburn can happen even during cooler temperatures with enough time spent in direct sunlight. Always keep these sun safety tips in mind as you’re getting out there more with your furry friend.

Dr. Chris is considered one of the country’s leading veterinarians. He completed a dual Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degree and Masters in Public Health at Virginia Tech, a top veterinary school in the country.