Protect Your Pets From Sunburn

What to know about sunscreen for your dog and other pets

dog napping outside
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Over the last 20 years or so, there has been increased interest, education, and products available to protect people from sunburn. News and increased knowledge about various skin cancers have helped people shift from the "healthy tan" mindset to total skin care and protection from the sun's rays, starting at infancy.

Now the sun skin care attention is turning to our pets. White animals and those that have a haircut or naturally thin (or non-existent) hair coats are particularly sensitive to the sun and may suffer the same ills as humans: sunburn and skin cancers. Learn important tips and cautions for protecting your pet on those sunny days.

Provide Shade

Availability of shade and fresh water should be available at all times to keep your pet comfortable and prevent heat stroke. This is obvious, but for outdoor pets, if their quarters can be fully shaded (such as a kennel), risks of sun damage are greatly reduced. Consider buying a sun block top for outdoor housing.

Provide Sunblock

Like humans, pets should have sunblock applied to sun-sensitive areas such as tips of ears, nose the belly and groin areas that typically have sparse hair coverage and thinner skin. Cats love to sunbathe and some dogs will too, belly up. Additionally, many people get "summer cuts" for their cats and dogs to reduce matting and keep the pets comfortable in the summer heat. Sunburn is a definite possibility, and groomers should warn pet owners of this possibility.

What Products Are Safe?

It should be remembered that dogs and especially cats are adept at licking off topical lotions, sprays, and creams. These substances can be toxic to dogs and especially for cats. It was once recommended that anything safe for human babies would be OK to use on pets with supervision (let the lotion soak in before licking can occur), and that is a guideline, but with the following considerations in mind.

  • Using products on a species not covered by product usage guidelines is off-label usage.
  • Please consult with your veterinarian prior to using any human products or medications on your pet.
  • Toxicities resulting from off-label usage by pet owners was the number one pet health insurance claim in a survey by VPI.
  • It is very important to read all instructions and directions before applying any product to your pet.

Pet Sunscreen Tips

  • Use pet-safe sunscreens if possible. One FDA approved pet sunscreen is Epi-Pet Sun Protector. This is great news for dogs and horses but unfortunately is not able to be used on cats. A feline sunscreen is being worked on, however. The marketing director for Epi-Pet has said that two of the ingredients commonly used in sunscreens break down in cats to salicylic acid, a.k.a aspirin, a known toxin for cats.
  • Feline sunscreen protection is trickier. Avoid products with octyl salicylate, homosalate and ethylhexyl salicylate (common sunscreen ingredients). Products containing titanium dioxide as an active ingredient are OK to use on ear tips and noses. This ingredient works by physically blocking the sun's harmful rays, so it is not absorbed (much) by the skin. (This is in contrast to sunblocks that work to chemically block the sun's ray.) The Epi-Pet spokeswoman said that this compound is toxic if ingested, so caution is advised.​

Sunscreens contain ingredients that are absorbed through the skin and are regulated by the FDA. All ingredients should be listed on the container. Sun Protection Factor (SPF) has not been rated for animals, and because of this, SPS of animal-specific products should be labeled as "comparable to" their human counterparts, according to FDA requirements. 

If your dog does get sunburned, it is important to treat it with first aid