By: Dr. Juli, DVM
Whether you are hitting the beach or exploring new parks and trails this summer, chances are you will slather on sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun's seething ultraviolet (UV) rays. From childhood to adulthood, most people have been reminded of the importance of daily sun protection, even when spending time indoors. Songs and books have even been written about the importance of wearing sunscreen and protective clothing. But what about our four-legged companions?
Many dog owners take their pups everywhere, especially for some summertime fun. In addition to overheating due to too much sun exposure, your dog may be equally at risk for sunburns or other forms of sun damage when outdoors. Understanding the risks and ways to protect your pup this summer will ensure they remain healthy and sunburn-free.
How to Tell if Your Dog Needs Sunscreen
Excess exposure to the sun's intense UV rays can damage the skin cells and cause them to die off. In response to this damage, blood vessels will dilate, and the immune system signals cells to the area to repair the damage. The result is red, inflamed, and sometimes swollen skin. These painful sunburns can also increase your dog's risk for other health problems like dermatitis, skin infections, and some skin cancers, including malignant melanoma, squamous cell carcinomas, and hemangiosarcomas.
Any dog can become sunburned; however, dogs with light or white fur, those with thin coats, and hairless dogs have an increased risk of sunburn because they have less melanin and skin protection (i.e., fur) on their skin. Additionally, dogs with underlying health problems, including autoimmune disease, allergies, alopecia, or undergoing radiation therapy for cancer, are more prone to sunburn. In addition to hairless breeds, the dog breeds most at risk for sunburns include Dalmatians, boxers, greyhounds, collies, bulldogs, bull terriers, and Chinese crested dogs.
Common body parts affected include the bridge of the nose, ear tips, around the mouth, abdomen, groin, and armpits. Dogs who enjoy sunbathing on their back or taking long walks on the neighborhood sidewalks are also at risk for sunburns to their abdomen because the UV rays will reflect upwards from the concrete towards your dog's underbelly.
Signs and Treatments for Dog Sunburns
Dogs who have suffered a sunburn may exhibit red, flaking, painful, swollen skin that is sensitive when touched. If you notice your dog's skin or nose is becoming pink outside, immediately bring them indoors or take them to a shaded area. For mild sunburns, you can apply a cool compress to the area. Never apply topical medications or soothing ointments, like aloe, to your dog's skin unless your veterinarian advises. Specifically, aloe vera is toxic to dogs and can cause gastrointestinal (GI) upset, depression, lethargy, and tremors in some cases.
Dogs with sunburns may be tempted to lick, bite, or scratch inflamed skin, leading to skin infections and injuries. Bring your dog for a veterinarian examination if they are showing severe sunburn signs or experiencing any associated discomfort. In some cases, a topical antibiotic or anti-inflammatory cream may be prescribed, as well as oral pain medications and antibiotics for skin infections.
When and How to Put Sunscreen On Your Dog
If your dog has an increased risk for sunburns, or you plan to spend extended time outdoors, applying a dog-safe sunscreen to hairless body parts will help protect them from burning. Never apply human sunscreen on your dog, as most contain harmful ingredients when ingested by dogs. Specifically, zinc-oxide and para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) are toxic to your pup. Choose sunscreens that are waterproof, unscented, and have an SPF greater than 50.
Dog-safe sunscreens and sun protection balms are available; however, some sunblock products for babies may be a safe alternative in a pinch. Ensure the bottle does not have any warnings against ingestion. In most cases, titanium dioxide is a safe ingredient for dogs. However, always check with your veterinarian before applying human products to your dog's skin. Before using sunscreen throughout your dog's skin, apply a small amount to a small area of their body to check for adverse reactions, like inflamed or itching skin. If your dog does not have any adverse reaction after several minutes, then continue to apply to the rest of the body.
Sunscreen should be applied 20 minutes before sun exposure, particularly to the nose, ear tips, groin, armpits, and belly. Watch your pup closely to ensure they do not lick it off, and allow it to dry. Once outdoors, reapply sunscreen every four to six hours or after swimming.
Other Dangers of Sun Exposure for Dogs
Sunburns aren't the only hazards of prolonged sun exposure. Because your pup wears a year-round fur coat and cannot sweat like us, they are at risk for heat exhaustion or heat stroke, which can be deadly. Heatstroke, or heat exhaustion, occurs when your dog's core body temperature rises above the normal range of 100 to 102.5 degrees due to exposure to a hot environment. Dogs exposed to high humidity can also suffer heat stroke at lower temperatures. Although dogs have some sweat glands, they primarily cool themselves by removing moisture through their mouth by panting.
Any breed or age dog can be affected, but brachycephalic breeds, such as bulldogs and pugs, have an increased risk for heat stroke because their shorter oral and nasal cavities are less efficient at cooling. Overweight dogs, seniors, and dogs with underlying heart and lung problems also have an increased risk of overheating.
In addition to prolonged, direct sun exposure, other culprits for heat stroke include:
- Being left inside a non-air conditioned car, even when it does not feel hot outside. Cracking the window does not allow proper cooling.
- Being left indoors during warm weather without proper ventilation or air conditioning.
- Excessive playing or exercising outside during warm weather with no breaks for cooling or hydration.
- Inadequate access to cool water during warm weather.
- Being left outside during warm weather with no access to shade or water.
The sun can also heat the pavement. Generally, if the ground is too hot for you to walk barefoot, it's too hot for your dog's paws. Hot concrete and pavement can lead to burnt and injured paw pads, which are painful and increase your dog's risk for infection.
How to Keep Your Dog Safe in the Sun
Spending time outdoors this summer is a great way to bond with your dog while providing them mental and physical enrichment. However, ensuring your pup is prepared for a day of fun in the sun will help avoid accidents and unexpected veterinary visits. Follow these dog sun safety tips:
- Avoid taking your dog outside during the hottest part of the day, usually between 10:00 am and 4:00 pm.
- Provide ample shade and breaks when spending extended time outdoors.
- Ensure cool, fresh water is readily available at all times. Try adding a bone broth supplement to help encourage your pup to drink.
- Support your dog's skin barrier with veterinary-approved skin and coat supplements.
- Before going outside, protect your pup's paws with properly fitting dog booties or a protective salve, like Musher's Secret.
- Consider placing a cooling vest or sun-protecting clothing on your dog to protect against the heat and sun.
- Offer pupsicle breaks throughout the day to improve their hydration and help them remain cool.
- Immediately bring your dog indoors and call your veterinarian if you suspect they have heat exhaustion or a sunburn.
Spending time in the sun with your pup can raise everyone's mood. Follow these sun safety tips, and remember the pet-safe sunscreen on your next outdoor adventure. For more tips on your pet's health, check out the Native Pet blog.