By M. Kathleen Shaw, DVM
Most of us like to enjoy time outside in the sun with our pets. But did you know dogs and cats can get sunburned, too? Animals with light skin or thin hair are particularly susceptible to sunburn and even skin cancer. Ears and the bridge of the nose are the most common spots burnt, but the inner hind legs and abdomen can also be burnt by UV light that reflects off concrete surfaces. And, we all know some dogs who love to lie on their backs out in the sun. Light skinned dogs that have been clipped down for the summer can get sunburned.
Signs of sunburn are red skin and hair loss. Sunburn can make allergies and hotspots worse. Over time, repeated sunburn can cause skin cancer, especially on the tips of the ears in our pets. Furthermore, as most of us know, sunburn hurts!
The American Animal Hospital Association (AAHA) recommends use of sunscreen on appropriate animals. There are several brands of pet sunscreens available, which you can find by talking to your veterinarian, local pet store, or searching online. Some of these products are for dogs only, and some are for cats, kittens, dogs, puppies and horses. The sunscreen for dogs should be fragrance free, non-staining, and contain UVA and UVB barriers similar to SPF 15 or SPF 30 for humans. (SPF labeling and claims are not permitted in products marketed for use on pets, however, because the FDA has not established a test to determine SPF values in pets.) Some protective ingredients include Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, Octyl Salicylate, Homosalate and Benzophenone-3. Most human sunscreens have ingestion warnings because the ingredients can be toxic if a child or dog ingests them. If your pet is likely to lick it, look for a pet-specific sunscreen. Some veterinary dermatologists recommend using clear, quick drying sunscreen for babies, because it reduces licking. It is important to read the label to make sure the sunscreen is safe for the species you want to treat.
If you intend to use a sunscreen on a cat, remember, cats are not small dogs: some ingredients in dog sunscreens can be toxic to cats! Be certain that the product labeling specifically states that it is appropriate and safe for cats. Octyl Salicylate products should not be used on cats. If in doubt, check with your veterinarian.
Sunscreen can be applied to the bridge of the nose, ear tips, and anywhere where the skin is light colored. Just as in humans, you should re-apply regularly (every 4-6 hours) during peak sun exposure.
If you have any questions about which sunscreen to use in your pet, and especially before you use one not specifically labeled for dogs or cats, contact your veterinarian for advice. A little prevention now can save your pet a lot of pain and irritation, and could prevent skin cancer later in life.
By M. Kathleen Shaw, DVM