Does your pet love to bask in the sun? It’s not as harmless as it seems. Because pets can get sunburned — and develop skin cancer — too.
Unfortunately, a fur coat doesn’t always prevent pets from experiencing the harmful effects of UV rays. Like fair-haired people, dogs and cats with white or sparse coats, unpigmented skin and/or pink noses tend to be more susceptible to sunburn.
That means short-coated breeds such as pit bulls, boxers, bulldogs and Dalmatians that lack pigment may get more than their fair share of sunburns. Not surprisingly, hairless breeds including Chinese crested dogs or sphynx cats can be at risk. And if your pet has hair loss from allergies or is shaved down to stay cool in the summer, you guessed it — exposed areas can be sunburned.
For most dogs, relatively hairless areas such as the armpits, groin and belly are commonly sunburned. Same goes for areas of the face, including the ears, around the lips, on the bridge and sides of the muzzle as well as eyelids.
And your white cat that snoozes in the sun as it slants onto the living room rug? It can get sunburned too, without even going outdoors. Common sunburn locations for cats include the ears, the skin directly in front of the ears, and the areas around the eyes, nose and lips.
Harmful UV rays
Ultraviolet (UV) rays can penetrate the skin and cause changes inside cells that can lead to skin aging and several types of cancer. UVB rays, which consist of relatively short wavelengths, tend to penetrate the superficial layers of skin and generally cause the redness associated with sunburn.
The majority of UV rays — nearly 95 percent — consist of “longer” UVA rays, which can penetrate through glass and deeper into the skin than UVB rays, potentially causing damage that can lead to skin cancer.
Protecting your pet
The best way to protect your pet is to keep it out of the direct sun during the parts of the day when UV rays are most intense, typically between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. For indoor sunbathers, consider closing the shades or applying window film that helps block UV rays in your pet’s favorite sunny spot.
When venturing outdoors, apply sunscreen to exposed areas of your dog or cat. Your veterinarian can recommend a sunscreen made especially for pets. Typically, these products are fragrance-free and do not contain ingredients that are potentially toxic to pets such as zinc oxide and para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA). Ideally, the product should help protect against both UVA and UVB rays.
If you can’t find a pet-specific sunscreen, one designed for babies and children may be an option. Look for a broad-spectrum, fragrance-free, waterproof product with an SPF of at least 15 or 30. Again, make sure the product doesn’t contain zinc oxide or PABA. Human sunscreens may also contain ingredients such as octyl salicylate, a derivative of aspirin. Since cats are especially sensitive to aspirin, avoid these products in cats that might ingest the ingredient while grooming. If you have any concerns about a particular product, don’t hesitate to consult with your veterinarian.
Apply the sunscreen about 15 to 20 minutes before your pet will be in the sun. Rub the sunscreen into the areas most exposed, such as the ears, nose, armpits and groin, while avoiding the eyes. Prevent your pet from licking the areas for about 15 minutes, until the sunscreen is absorbed into the skin. Even if the product is waterproof, you’ll want to reapply it every four to six hours if your pet is swimming or outside for any length of time.
It’s easy to find sun-protective pet clothing, some of which is made with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF). A UPF of 50 means that 1/50th of the sun’s UV rays can reach the skin. You can even outfit your pet with hats and goggles to help cut down on glare. Just remember to make sure your pet doesn’t overheat because it’s wearing an extra layer in the sun.
Once you and your pet have had fun in the sun, find a nice, quiet place to relax — in the shade.
The information in this blog has been developed with our veterinarian and is designed to help educate pet parents. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health or nutrition, please talk with your veterinarian.