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How to Protect Your Dogs from Sunburn

In the dog days of summer, how do you protect your pup from the sun? By Claudia Bensimoun

Since our dogs spend so much time outdoors, it only makes sense to question how much sun is harmful. Not surprisingly, pet parents need to monitor their dog's exposure to the harmful effects of UV rays. Dr. Christa Horvath-Ungerböeck, a veterinary dermatologist from the University of Veterinary Medicine, Vienna, suggests that dogs that have white or thin coats need to have special preventative sun care, since these dogs are particularly at risk. Extreme care also needs to be given to dogs that have recently had their fur clipped short, and to dogs with pre-existing medical conditions.

New research by Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck demonstrates which dogs and other animals are most sensitive to sun exposure, and the harmful effects of sunburn. "Some animals particularly enjoy lying on their backs to bask in the sun. This exposes the skin on their bellies, which is often hairless, to the rays of the sun, increasing the risk of sunburn," explains Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck via Science Daily. In this new study, the doctor discusses why dogs and all animals with very little or no hair or pigmentation may also be vulnerable to sunburn. While some owners will apply canine sunscreen on their dog's noses, the doctor discourages pet parents from ignoring other areas such as the skin around a dog's eyes, his ears, his back and the bridge of his nose. These parts are very sensitive to the sun and need extra protection. 

Vulnerable Dog Breeds

While breeds like Dalmatians, Whippets, white Bulldogs, Beagles and the Dogo Argentino are particularly at risk for sunburn, Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck suggests looking out for any dogs that have white pigmentation or clipped coats. These dogs will also have a tendency to suffer from sunburn. With short hair, the UV rays can penetrate all the way through to the sensitive skin, and result in sunburn. Dogs that have no hair will have no natural sun protection. Dogs and animals that have darker skin pigmentation are less prone to sunburn. Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck suggests that owners of dogs that are vulnerable to sunburn should be careful to protect their dogs from harmful UV rays. 

Recognizing Sunburn

In dogs, sunburn can appear as red skin or even hair loss. "Most dogs have pigmented skin. White dogs have pink skin, but most of it is protected from the sun by fur. Skin cancer from excess exposure to the sun most often occurs in two places: the noses of white dogs or dogs with pink noses or white markings on the top of the muzzle, and on the ears," says Dr. Nancy Scanlan, DVM, via Animal Wellness, Vol. 15, Issue 3.

Kate, owned by Sarah Duke, got sunburned by her eye. Sarah is searching for sunscreen that is safe to use by the eye. Photo courtesy of Sarah Duke. 

What Type of Sun Protection Should Dogs Use?

What many of us need to know is that a sunscreen doesn't need to contain any unhealthy synthetic or chemical sun filters, yet many do. Some veterinarians recommend using a children's sunscreen that contains avobenzone, also called Parsol 1789. Parsol 1789 contains a UVA blocker and octisate, which blocks UVB rays. This is safer than using a sunscreen that contains zinc oxide because any ingestion of that chemical could lead to hemolytic anemia in pets. Never use a sunscreen that contains PABA, as this can be fatal if licked off. 

Epi-Pet's Sun Protector sunscreen is formulated especially for dogs and is fragrance free. Epi-pet worked together with the FDA to ensure that their sunscreen meets the ingredient stability requirements for pet sunscreens. They also added tocopheryl, a well-known antioxidant that promotes healing for burned or damaged skin. Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck says that animals with very sensitive skin should use a sunscreen that is waterproof with an SPF of at least 30.

There are other ways to protect dogs from the sun's damaging rays. "As a rule, animals should have a shady place to lie in. Especially at midday, when the sun is at its strongest and presents the greatest risk, not just for the skin but for the animal overall," adds Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck via Science Daily. When out hiking, the doctor suggests that dogs and all other animals that are sensitive to sunburn should wear a canine t-shirt, coat or hat for protection. Nonetheless, the veterinary dermatologist also adds, "Not every white dog or white cat needs sunscreen or clothing to protect it from the sun. If sun damage has already occurred though, or if an animal is highly sensitive, it is up to us to protect it from further damage." (Via Science Daily.) 

Although Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck is a proponent of using canine sunscreen, Dr. Douglas Thamm, VMD, DACVIM, Oncology and Director of Clinical Research at the Colorado State University adds via Animal Wellness, Vol. 15, Issue 3 that "Sunscreen is not recommended for the prevention of skin cancer in dogs. It is all licked off after application, and toxicity after oral ingestion has not been well studied. Behavior modification such as keeping dogs out of the sun is the best preventative. UV blocking shirts and suits for dogs is a good alternative as well."

Choosing a Canine Sunscreen

Use a pet sunscreen that is formulated especially for dogs. Petkin has developed a range of canine-friendly sunscreens which prevent sunburn and carry a UV-fighting strength equivalent to a human sunscreen of factor 15. The three-piece sunblock range includes sun wipes, a sun stick for vulnerable areas like the muzzle, nose and ears, as well as a sun mist. This can be sprayed anywhere on your dog's body. Products like Solar Rx are also recommended. This is an everyday moisturizing SPF 30. Sunscreens such as Aubrey Organics Green Tea Sunblock for children with SPF 25 and Jason Kids' Block with SPF 46 come highly recommended. The Natural Dog Snout Soother (SPF 10), which contains shea butter, kukui nut oil, and vitamin E offers snout sunburn protection and relief. Nutri-Vet's Sun Defense spray for dogs is also an easy and excellent way to protect your dogs from sunburn. 

Ingredients To Avoid

Sunscreens that contain the following ingredients should not be used on dogs.

-Methyl Parabene
-Zinc Oxide
-DMDM Hydantoin

How to Treat Canine Sunburn

If your dog's skin has reddened, is warm to the touch, or if he has flaky skin, Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck suggests that you should move your dog or animal to the shade immediately. Apply cool compresses and ointments which will help to soothe your dog's skin, relieve the pain and all initial sunburn symptoms. If your dog's sunburn is severe, Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck suggests contacting your veterinarian as soon as possible, since cortisone treatment may be needed to prevent any inflammation of your dog's skin. If your dog develops a secondary infection, he may need antibiotics. Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck also recommends keeping the affected dog well protected from the sun in the future, so as to prevent permanent skin damage.

Which Pre-Existing Conditions Can Increase Skin Sensitivity?

Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck adds that there are some illnesses and genetic defects that will contribute to a thin coat, and make a dog more sensitive to sunburn. Illnesses such as parasitic infections, congenital hairlessness and chronic skin conditions will all affect a dog's coat, and possibly result in a thinner coat or hair loss. Dogs that are exposed to the sun and have these conditions must be protected. The doctor suggests observing, covering and protecting any areas that have had a sudden hair loss like scar tissue from a recent surgery or injury.

What Damage is Caused by Sun Exposure?

In dogs and other animals, sunburn causes acute inflammation of the skin. This will result in pain or itching, or even both. Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck adds that too many sunburns can result in pre-cancerous conditions in your dog, and even actual skin tumors. "We sometimes see squamous cell carcinoma on the heads of white, outdoor cats as the result of chronic sun exposure. The affected areas of the skin then need to be surgically removed," explains Dr. Horvath-Ungerböeck via Science Daily.

Walk your dogs during the early morning hours and late afternoon, when it's not as hot. Change your dog's exercise routine during the hot summer months and even consider taking him to an indoor dog park. Keeping your dogs out of the sun can also help prevent sunburn and skin cancer.


Claudia Bensimoun is a freelance writer in West Palm Beach.


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