By Sarah Figley
With spring’s arrival and summer not far behind, people and pets alike flock outdoors to enjoy the warm weather and sunshine. We take along sunscreen, hats, sunglasses and clothes to protect our skin from the damaging ultraviolet (UV) light of the sun — but what do we do to protect our pets?
If you’ve never thought about this before, don’t worry, you’re not the only one! Sun protection for animals is an important consideration that many pet guardians innocently overlook.
Dr. Allison Foster is keen on helping pet guardians understand the risks and signs of skin damage so they can keep their animals safe.
“It’s important to have annual check-ups so your veterinarian can look for changes in your animal’s skin — especially since the changes can be subtle,” says Dr. Foster, a clinical associate in dermatology at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Medical Centre.
Just like humans, dogs can get sunburns that can be painful and uncomfortable. These burns also increase their risk of developing skin cancer — something that can be successfully treated if diagnosed early.
Dr. Foster explains that there are varying levels of sun exposure and damage. If your pet does get sunburned, you should consult with your veterinarian to discuss treatments and future preventative skin care. For dogs and cats that have skin damage from chronic sun exposure, therapies may be available for pre-cancerous and cancerous changes.
Dr. Foster recommends that owners do what they can to prevent sun damage. “Avoidance is key,” she says.
Here are some tips for guardians who enjoy spending time outside with their pets:
- Dogs with short, light-coloured coats (such as Dalmations, Pitbulls, white Boxers and American Bulldogs) and cats with white coats are more susceptible to sunburns so be particularly careful with these animals when you’re outside.
- Sunburns are most likely to occur where there is no hair such as the nose, paws and around the eyes; where there is thinner hair such as on the tips of the ear, muzzle, lips and groin area; and in non-pigmented areas such as the lighter spots in the hair/skin and around the eyes.
- Apply sunscreen to unprotected areas of skin such as the ears and nose and re-apply sunscreen regularly as directed.
- Human sunscreens may contain ingredients that can be harmful to both dogs and cats including zinc oxide, octyl salicylate, homosalate and ethylhexyl salicylate. Always check with your veterinarian before using a product to ensure it is appropriate for your pet. If available, use sunscreen products that are designed specifically for animals.
- If you can’t find a pet-specific sunscreen, you might be able to use one that is for children/infants but check with your veterinarian first. Dogs and cats have a tendency to lick or ingest sunscreen, so it’s best to make sure it’s safe.
- Be careful when taking your animal on the water or in a boat. The reflection of UV rays off the water can cause extra exposure and damage to your pet’s skin.
- Avoid being outside during periods of intense sun — generally between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. (times can vary depending on where you live). Keep animals in shaded areas when possible.
- Don’t be fooled by going out on cloudy days. UV rays can penetrate the clouds, and that means your pet is still at risk.
- Keep water readily available. Animals that are outside and active get dehydrated easily.
There are a few things you can look for that may indicate sun damage. Redness and scaliness on sparsely haired areas as well as lesions that won’t heal — particularly on the ears, nose or around the eyes — are all common signs of sun damage.
Spending time in the sun can also amplify or trigger the onset of other conditions. “UV exposure can potentially cause or exacerbate the symptoms of certain autoimmune skin diseases in animals such as discoid lupus erythematosus or pemphigus erythematosus,” says Dr. Foster.
If your pet likes to sunbathe, as many animals do, Dr. Foster recommends that owners use a sunsuit or bodysuit on their pet. She adds that some animals prefer lying on one side exposing certain areas of skin to the sun more often.
“Some animals will also lick off sunscreen, and it’s not something you can control. If that’s the case with your pet, consider using a sunsuit or bodysuit,” Dr. Foster suggests.
Sunsuits and bodysuits are made of light, breathable fabric that also blocks UV rays. Animal-specific clothing can offer additional skin protection but make sure your dog doesn’t overheat.
For more information about protecting your animals from the sun, talk to your veterinarian.
—Sarah Figley is a second-year veterinary student from Saskatoon, SK, and was the WCVM’s research communications intern for the summer of 2014. This article is reprinted with permission from the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Companion Animal Health Fund (www.cahf.usask.ca).