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Can Dogs Get Sunburn and What Are the Signs?

Some sun exposure is natural. It’s even helpful for regulating mood and certain substances in the body like vitamin D. However, too much sunlight can be dangerous for dogs, just as it is for pet parents.

So, do dogs get sunburn? Yes, they do! 

Below, we’ll cover what you need to know about dogs and sunburn, including health risks and how to keep your furry friend safe.

Can Dogs Get Sunburn?

Yes. Just like human beings, dogs can become sunburned with too much sun exposure. 

Harmful UV rays can damage skin cells quickly—often in less than one hour.

Sunburn is most common with summertime activities, but can occur anywhere or anytime sun exposure is high. This includes high altitude locations.

Even pups that prefer the couch to hiking and swimming can acquire sunburn during walks outdoors. Also, sun damage through a window has been documented in indoor cats. Although most dogs don’t sleep on windowsills for hours like cats do, it just goes to show that sunburn can be a risk no matter what a pet’s lifestyle. 

Are Some Dogs More Susceptible to Sunburn than Others?

Here’s another similarity canines share with their human companions: People with lighter skin and hair tend to burn easier—and the same is true for dogs.

Pups with fair skin and fur have an increased risk, as do breeds with shorter, thinner fur. Examples of dog breeds more prone to sunburn include:

  • Hairless breeds, like the Chinese crested dog.

  • French bulldogs.

  • Boxers.

  • Bull terriers.

  • Weimaraners.

  • Greyhounds.

  • Dalmatians.

  • Pitbulls.

  • Chihuahuas.

Besides breed and fur/skin types, medical conditions that cause hair loss increase a dog’s risk for sunburn. This includes, but is not limited to, allergies, hot spots or wounds, skin parasites like fleas, or certain hormonal imbalances. 

Some immune mediated conditions like lupus, which decreases skin pigmentation, can also reduce a dog’s natural sun protection.

While different dogs have a higher or lower natural risk of sunburn, no dog is immune to sun damage! 

ANY pup can get sunburnt. It’s important to take precautions, even if your pet isn’t in a high risk group.

Does Shaving a Dog in the Summer Increase the Risk of Sunburn?

There is a lot of debate about this question, even amongst the experts. But the short answer is: Yes, shaving a dog’s coat increases their risk of sunburn by removing some of their natural sun protection. 

However, there may be other benefits to trimming a dog’s fur. So, when making this decision, talk to your vet about pros and cons for your individual pet. If you do decide to shave their fur, take extra precautions to prevent sunburn.

Where Do Dogs Get Sunburn?

Dogs can get sunburn on any part of their body. However, it’s much more common in areas with thin fur or no fur.

This primarily includes:

  • The ear flaps.

  • The bridge of the nose.

  • Thinly haired parts of the face, such as near the eyes and mouth.

  • The belly and groin. These areas can be exposed if a dog lies on their back to sunbathe. But sunlight can also bounce up from the sidewalk and burn the underside of a dog, especially in short-legged breeds like Dachshunds.

  • Any part of the body where fur has been lost or shaved, or where fur is thinner and provides less screening against the sun.

Signs of Sunburn in Dogs

Depending on how severe the burn is, dogs with sunburn may show one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Red or pink skin.

  • Sore or tender skin.

  • Hair loss at affected areas.

  • Dry, cracked, or misshapen ear tips.

  • Skin ulcers, wounds, rashes, or infections.

  • In severe cases, a dog may act generally unwell or have a slight fever.

With chronic sun damage over time, the skin may change in appearance. This is known as solar dermatitis or actinic dermatitis. 

Affected areas may become red, scaly, thickened, or bumpy. These changes may indicate a higher risk of skin cancer, although skin cancer can still occur in dogs who never develop actinic dermatitis.

What Are the Risks of Sunburn in Dogs?

The most concerning risk for a dog’s long-term health is the development of skin cancer. 

Just like humans, dogs can develop malignant melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma, or other types of skin cancer after UV-related skin damage. 

Likelihood of cancer varies by individual dog. But it’s always beneficial to decrease your dog’s risk of sunburn, especially if they are at higher risk due to breed or lifestyle factors.

In the short-term, it’s also important to remember how painful sunburn can be. 

No dog owner wants their pup to feel pain from sunburn, or to develop wounds, bacterial infections, or fungal infections secondary to skin damage. So, it’s important to protect your pup’s skin.

Treating Sunburn in Dogs

Place a cool compress on the affected areas, if your dog allows you to do so. Wet, cool towels may feel soothing. You can also place aloe vera gel to soothe and hydrate sunburnt skin.

In mild cases, this may be all that’s needed. But if your dog is in discomfort or has severe burns or wounds, a vet visit is warranted.

Medicated creams or lotions may be prescribed, as well as medications to relieve pain. Severely affected dogs may need fluids, especially if they are also overheated from the warm weather.

If you notice any masses or unusual changes on your dog’s skin, seek a veterinary consultation, whether they’ve had recent sun exposure or not. A biopsy may be performed to determine if skin cancer is present. Should this happen, your vet will advise you on what to do next.

Never give medications without talking to your vet team first! Some can be harmful to dogs or make the condition worse.

How to Prevent Sunburn in Dogs

To minimize the risk of dog sunburn, try these tips:

  • Avoidance is the best way to prevent sunburn. Avoid extended outdoor activities from 10am-4pm, peak hours for sunlight. Make sure plenty of shade is available. These precautions, along with good airflow/breezes and plenty of fresh drinking water, also reduce your dog’s risk of heat stroke.

  • Use a dog-safe sunscreen (more information below).

  • Consider adding a UV-blocking doggy shirt or bodysuit for summer activities. Sunscreen is still needed on vulnerable areas not covered by this clothing.

  • Monitor your dog for skin changes and skin masses. Have changes evaluated by a veterinarian. In case skin cancer occurs, earlier diagnosis and treatment is best.

Dog Sunscreen and How to Apply It

Important note: Not all sunscreens are safe for dogs!

Below are some tips for selecting and applying a dog-friendly sunscreen.

  • It’s best to choose a product specifically designed for canines. 

  • If using a human sunscreen, ask your veterinarian for recommendations, or consult with the Pet Poison Helpline for advice on choosing safe products. Products for babies or infants are usually better than adult sunscreens, but even these aren’t guaranteed to be safe for dogs.

  • Choose fragrance free products. 

  • Avoid zinc oxide, since zinc can cause life-threatening anemia if ingested (dogs tend to lick areas where sunscreen is applied).

  • Choose the highest UV protection you can. 30+ or higher is ideal.

  • Only apply to the highest risk areas. This includes ears, nose, near the eyes and lips, the belly, the groin, and anywhere with thin or missing fur. 

  • If your dog tries to lick away the sunscreen, distract them with play or attention after applying it. Even if the sunscreen is safe to eat, too much licking will remove the protection.

  • Reapply sunscreen after swimming or water play. 

A little knowledge and planning can reduce the risk of sunburn and help you and your pup enjoy the summer safely.

For any further questions or concerns about your dog’s skin, schedule a telehealth or in-clinic visit with our caring veterinary team. We’ll be happy to answer your questions and make a plan to keep your pup safe and healthy in the summer months and beyond!

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