Does your canine buddy love romping around or basking under the warm sunshine? While it’s adorable to see your pet enjoy the great outdoors, did you know that excess sun exposure can lead to sunburns and skin cancer in dogs?
Just like humans, dogs can also be at risk of sunburn and other negative effects from too much sun exposure. But while we frequently take precautions to protect ourselves from the sun’s harmful rays, our dogs are often overlooked when it comes to sun protection.
Should similar precautions be observed to safeguard pet dogs from sun exposure?
Yes, dogs are also susceptible to sunburn and various health issues linked to sun exposure, such as skin cancer. Observing specific safety measures can reduce the likelihood of your dog developing serious sun-related health problems.
Phototoxicity (sunburn) and photosensitivity are the two most important forms of sunlight-induced disease recognized by veterinary surgeons in dogs. It is mediated by UVB radiation and has a spectrum of presentations, ranging from sunburn to more severe actinic damage and squamous cell carcinoma. Phototoxicity is usually seen on white or non-pigmented skin, especially where there is little hair covering.1
The Dog’s Skin
The skin is the largest organ of the dog’s body. It functions as a vital protective shield against environmental elements. Additionally, it plays a crucial role in regulating body temperature and facilitating their sense of touch.
Layers of the Skin
There are three primary layers that comprise the skin– the epidermis, dermis, and subcutis.
The epidermis is the outermost layer of the skin. It is composed of several types of cells with special functions.
- Keratinocytes create a protective layer that keeps in fluids, salts, and nutrients while keeping out infectious or toxic agents.²
- Melanocytes produce melanin, which is responsible for skin and hair color. The pigment also provides protection against the sun’s damaging rays.
- Langerhans cells are part of the immune system and play an essential role in the skin’s response to foreign substances.²
- Merkel cells are essential for sensory information.
The dermis is the second layer of the skin. Its primary function is to provide nutrition and support to the epidermis, sensory perception, and immune defense mechanisms.
- Hypodermis (Subcutis) The subcutis is the innermost layer of the skin. It contains subcutaneous fat and muscles. The subcutaneous fat provides many functions, including insulation, a reservoir for fluids, electrolytes, and energy, as well as cushioning, and sensory perception.
Dog Skin vs. Human Skin
Unlike humans, dogs have some distinct features that make them vulnerable to sunburn and other complications associated with excessive sun exposure.
While human skin has several layers, a dog’s skin is thinner and more sensitive. Being thinner means that harmful UV rays can penetrate more easily.
Table 1. Differences Between Dog Skin And Human Skin
|Human Skin||Dog Skin|
28 days (approx.)
Thickness of Epidermis
10-15 cells thick
3-5 cells thick
Solitary hair growth that continues to grow. Compound follicles can be found on the scalp.
Grow in bundles; hair dies when it reaches a certain length and is shed off.
Glands in the Dermal Layer
Apocrine Glands and Eccrine Glands – Produce sweat and are found all over the body.
Apocrine Glands – Help seal the outer layer of the dermis and secrete pheromones that give dogs their signature scent.
Eccrine glands – Produce a watery secretion similar to human sweat. Found in very limited quantities on a dog’s paws and nose.
5.5 – 7.2 (more alkaline)
Vitamin D Absorption
Get most of their vitamin D through exposure to sunlight.
Get most of their vitamin D from their diet.
Risks Associated With Dog Sunburns
Sunburn doesn’t just cause pain and discomfort; it can have serious consequences for your dog’s health. Taking preventive measures to protect your dog from sunburn is important. Here are the primary risks associated with dog sunburns:
- Prolonged sun exposure can lead to skin damage, including redness, peeling, and even blisters.
- Increased risk of skin cancer such as squamous cell carcinoma, malignant melanomas, and hemangiomas.
- Behavioral changes, such as irritability, restlessness, and decreased activity, can be manifested as a result of the pain and discomfort.
What Can Increase A Dog’s Risks For Sunburn?
While any dog can get sunburn, some are at a higher risk than others. These include:
- Hairless dog breeds (e.g. Xoloitzcuintli and American Hairless Terrier)
- Dogs with light-colored and/or thin coats such as Dalmatians, Boxers, Pit Bulls, Bull Terriers, and Whippet
- Albino dogs
- Dogs with lightly pigmented noses and eyelids
- Dogs experiencing hair loss either from seasonal shedding or a health issue
- Reduction of skin pigmentation associated with immune-mediated conditions, such as Lupus
- Dogs who’ve recently had their hair trimmed
- Dogs that live at higher altitudes because of lesser ozone protection
- Short-legged dogs are prone to belly sunburn when sunlight reflects up from the pavement as they walk.
Tips For Preventing Dog Sunburns
Most dogs look forward to spending time outdoors. While this can increase the risk of dog sunburns, this should not be a reason to keep your pet inside at all times. There are easy and convenient ways to protect your dog from the sun’s harmful rays so he can enjoy outdoor activities without worrying that he’d end up with sunburn.
Be mindful of the time you spend outdoors with your dog. Avoid being outside between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are at their peak. The best time for outdoor activities with your dog would be early morning or evening. If your furry friend has to stay outdoors, make sure that there is enough shade to protect him from direct sunlight. Don’t forget easy access to plenty of fresh, clean water!
Invest in UV-blocking clothing and accessories designed for dogs. Outdoor dog wear includes lightweight sun shirts and sun hats designed for dogs.
Don’t shave your dog! Shaving your pet’s coat too short, especially during summer, increases his risk of sun damage. Regular grooming can help manage your dog’s fur and reduce the risk of overheating. For breeds with light fur, consider keeping their coats longer to provide additional protection.
Protect your pet’s sensitive eyes from the sun’s harmful rays and prevent melanoma of the eye with doggie sunglasses or goggles.
Use a sunscreen formulated specifically for dogs. A pet-friendly sunscreen can help prevent potential harm caused by licking and ingestion. Apply sunblock on the sensitive areas of your dog’s body, such as the tips of the ears, nose, belly, and groin areas. Don’t forget to re-apply sunscreen if your dog is engaged in water activities.
Choosing The Right Sunscreen
Not all dog sunscreen products are created equal. Here are important factors that you should consider when choosing a sunscreen for your furry friend:
SPF Level: The American Kennel Club recommends looking for a waterproof, unscented dog sunscreen with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. This will offer stronger defense against harmful UV rays.
Water-Resistant: Choose a water-resistant sunscreen to ensure its effectiveness, especially if your dog enjoys swimming or frequently gets wet. This will help the sunscreen maintain its protective properties even when your dog is in the water.
Hypoallergenic: Avoid sunscreens with strong fragrances, as these can irritate your dog’s sensitive nose. If your dog has sensitive skin or allergies, using an unscented or hypoallergenic sunscreen may be beneficial. This can help minimize the chances of skin irritation.
Ease of Application: Choose a sunscreen that you can easily apply and evenly spread on your dog’s skin. Creams or sprays are both suitable options, but make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions for applying sunscreen to your dog’s skin. Pay particular attention to areas with less fur, such as the nose, ears, and belly.
Ingredients: Choose sunscreen products specifically formulated for pets. Avoid sunscreens containing zinc oxide or para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), as these can be toxic to dogs. Some formulations are made with a taste deterrent. This can be useful in preventing your dog from licking off sunscreen and accidental ingestion. Regular human sunscreen can contain ingredients that are harmful if ingested, so it’s important to choose a pet-safe product.
Seek Advice from Your Veterinarian: If you’re uncertain about which sunscreen to select or if your dog has specific skin concerns, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian. They can provide personalized recommendations for a suitable product that meets your dog’s individual requirements.
Before applying sunscreen to your dog’s entire body, it’s important to do a patch test on a small area of their skin first. This will help you determine if they have any negative reactions to the product.
Recognizing And Treating Dog Sunburns
It’s important for you to recognize the symptoms of dog sunburns so that you will know if there’s a need to seek immediate veterinary attention. If your pet dog is showing any of the following symptoms, or you’re unsure what to do, contact your veterinarian to find out if your pet needs any special care.
Skin is pink or deep red
A change in skin color is often the first noticeable sign when it comes to sunburn in dogs. Pink shows mild sunburn, while deep red indicates a more severe case of dog sunburn. The affected area is usually sore or tender.
If the ears are affected, they will make the tips appear dry, cracked, or misshapen.
Dry and flaky skin
This can happen a few days after a dog has sun exposure. Typically, sunburns aren’t itchy, but some dogs will scratch and chew at the affected skin. This can pave the way for secondary bacterial infections.
Moderate dog sunburns often have blisters. While this is not an emergency, you should keep a close eye on your pet. There are instances when the blisters may have pus inside or they can become painful. In this case, you should bring your dog to a veterinarian right away.
In some dogs, moderate to severe sunburn may be accompanied by a low fever. Also, check with your veterinarian if there is a need to bring your dog in for evaluation and further treatment. Perhaps your dog may need fluid therapy.
When Is Dog Sunburn An Emergency?
Sunburn in dogs isn’t always an emergency situation. If it’s a mild case of sunburn, there’s nothing to worry about. However, you should seek immediate veterinary attention when your dog is exhibiting the following symptoms:
- Skin is dark red or purple
- Pus is oozing from the skin
- Stops eating and/or drinking
Never take adequate sun protection for dogs for granted. It’s an essential part of responsible pet ownership.
You should always take a proactive approach to protect your canine buddy from the sun’s harmful rays by observing dog sun safety practices and choosing a suitable dog sunscreen. Furthermore, investing in sun-protective gear for dogs, and then being attentive to your canine buddy’s well-being when you’re out in the great outdoors.