Pets Can Get Sunburned Too

By: Carol S. Hillhouse, DVM, DABVP

TVMA Member
Panhandle, TX

Published February 2015

Which Pets are Most at Risk for Sunburn?

Do you have a white pet that spends time outside? Any pet is subject to sunburn, but a predominantly white dog or cat is the equivalent to a fair-skinned person in terms of sunburn potential. Other high-risk candidates include those dogs with poorly pigmented (pink) skin on eyelids and nose, sunbathers or those that have thin, very short or missing fur. Animals are usually covered with hair or dark skin that protects them from the sun’s harmful rays and ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Any circumstance that removes this natural protection may allow the pet to receive enough UV radiation to develop a sunburn.

What Happens When Your Pet is Sunburned?

Initially, sunburned skin is red, painful and scaly. With continued exposure, bumps and nodules can develop. Sunburned pets will usually lick or scratch excessively at the affected areas. The skin becomes thickened, and the lesions may bleed easily. Sunburn can irritate or make existing skin conditions, such as allergies, worse. Just as in humans, repeated exposure and sun-damaged skin may predispose pets to several types of skin cancer, including squamous cell carcinoma and hemangiosarcoma. A skin biopsy can differentiate between sun damage and skin cancer.

How Can You Prevent Sunburn in Pets?

Pets with the risk factors of white fur, poor pigmentation, sunbathing and hairless areas need to avoid the sun during the hottest part of the day, between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. If it is not possible to keep them indoors, simply providing shade is not enough! Pets must be forced to get under it, because they don’t know about the sun’s harmful effects.

Sunscreen can and should be used on pets. There are some sunscreens created specifically for pets, but using an infant sunscreen is also an option. Look for one that is fragrance-free, non-staining and waterproof. The FDA has not established a test to determine SPF values in pets, but aim for UV barriers above SPF 15. Avoid sunscreens that contain zinc, because it may be harmful if ingested. Also, products containing octyl salicylate should not be used on cats. Apply liberally every four to six hours during sun exposure, and apply to the bridge of the nose, ear tips, skin around the lips, groin, inner thighs and any other areas where pigmentation is low. Fabrics that block UV exposure are commercially available for sun suits as well.

Pet owners with high-risk dogs and cats can take steps to prevent sunburn and skin cancer. Your veterinarian may have some other suggestions, but I like to tell folks that their white pets need to become vampires and stay out of the sun!

Dr. Carol Hillhouse owns two mixed animal practices in the Texas Panhandle: Carson County Veterinary Clinic and High Plains Animal Hospital.