We all love the outdoors and we all know about the dangers of sun exposure for humans but what about our pets? Can dogs and cats get sunburnt?
Sun exposure and sunburn for dogs and cats is certainly a concern and for many of the same reasons as it is for humans. Solar Dermatitis is the word that Vets use to describe sun-damaged or sunburnt skin and long-term exposure can cause serious health problems. The main difference for pets is that usually we don’t see the acute sunburn symptoms like humans have after a day at the beach. As a result, we miss the early warning signs that damage is being done and this is perhaps one of the reasons that sunburn in dogs and cats doesn’t get much press.
The main symptom of Solar Dermatitis in dogs and cats is thickened, red skin with changes which become eventually irreversible, forming scars and blackheads as the damaged skin becomes infected. These symptoms tend to affect areas where the hair is thinnest. In dogs this is usually the armpits, the groin, the flank and the top of the nose. In cats we usually see damage to the face and the tips of the ears.
The symptoms often resemble those of skin allergies although, allergic dogs and cats tend to be itchier. Some unfortunate pets can suffer from both, which makes identifying the cause tricky.
While the symptoms above sound uncomfortable, the real concern with sunburn in our dogs and cats is the risk of cancer. Solar Dermatitis can lead to skin cancer which can spread throughout the body and become fatal.
Breeds with light coloured hair and skin are most at risk and in Australia, this includes Bull terriers and Staffordshire bull terriers, Boxers, Dalmatians, Whippets, Bulldogs, and Great Danes.
If you are worried about the risk of sun-damage or have noticed potential symptoms with your pet, then consult your regular Vet. A diagnosis of Solar Dermatitis involves ruling out other causes such as allergies, parasites and infection and ultimately, skin biopsies may be needed.
It might sound cliché, but the best treatment is prevention. Avoiding sun exposure is key. Ideally, don’t take your dog or cat out during the hottest part of the day. In the lucky country this can be anywhere from 9am – 4pm so I’d also always suggest routine use of pet-safe sunscreen as well. Twice daily application of sunscreen is better than once daily and reapply after swimming. Apply sunscreen to the areas mentioned above where the hair is thin and the skin is exposed to the sun.
Dogs and cats love to lick things so human SPF products containing Zinc should not be used as they become toxic when ingested. Dr Zoo makes a Zinc-Free Sun Cream just for pets’ skin with edible ingredients like Coconut oil, so they can lick all they like, although that’s not the idea. A handy tip after applying a lick-able sunscreen is to give them a treat to snack on or to distract them by preparing their lead and collar for a walk.
In addition to sunscreen, if your pet will tolerate it, a T-shirt may be helpful and there are all kinds of body suits available for dogs. While these can cover the large parts of the body, my only concern is the risk that your dog overheats or gets caught on something. My advice? Don’t leave your pet unattended in clothing, no matter how big a fan they are of RuPawl.
If you’ve got a cat or dog with light coloured hair or skin then you should be particularly vigilant but I think it’s a good idea for all pet owners to practice sun safety. Minimise sun exposure, use pet-safe sunscreen and have their skin checked regularly by your usual vet.
Xo Dogtor Andy