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Do Dogs Need Sunscreen?

Veterinary dermatology specialists weigh in on when and how to protect your best friend from the sun’s harmful effects. Read on to learn more.

By Krista Halling DVM CCRP DACVS, Tami Packham, Anthony Yu BSc DVM MSc DACVD

Have you ever wondered if outdoor adventures with your dog might be overexposing them to the sun’s harmful rays? Sunburns and photoaggrevated skin diseases have been reported in dogs, yet so has toxicity from licking unsafe ingredients found in sunscreen. So, how can you ensure your dog is adequately protected during your dogpacking adventures?

The sun’s ultraviolet light is a type of radiation. With enough exposure (via intensity and/or time) or sensitive skin, sun rays can be harmful to the skin and the eyes of our canine friends. 

Understanding canine sun sensitivity

Dogs, like humans, vary in their susceptibility to solar damage. There is currently not a lot of scientific data specifically related to the use of sunscreen in dogs. However, what we do know is that certain dogs and certain body regions can hugely benefit from the application of sunscreen.  Pet owners need to recognize the unique characteristics of their furry friends and tailor their sun safety measures accordingly. 

Which dogs are at high risk of sun damage?

Ultraviolet rays bounce off the hair coat of dogs, so the thicker the coat, the less exposure of the underlying skin to solar rays. Darkly-pigmented skin also offers some protection against damage from UV light. Conversely any of the following characteristics put a dog at higher risk for sun damage: 

  • Pink or light-coloured nose or skin 
  • Light-coloured eyes (i.e. blue or green irises)
  • Thin and short coats
  • Hairless
  • Medical conditions worsened by, or causing increased sensitivity to, UV light (ex: canine lupus erythematosus, pannus; some photosensitizing medications such as tetracycline antibiotics)
  • Living or adventuring at high altitude – dogs living in high places such as Colorado are at greater risk for UV-induced or UV-aggravated skin diseases
If your dog enjoys sunbathing or is outdoors a lot, pay extra attention to their sun protection needs
Pink or light-coloured nose, muzzle or ear tips are prone to sunburn
Dogs with darkly pigmented noses have inherent protection against UV rays compared to those with pink-coloured body parts

Sensitive areas

Not all areas of a dog’s body are equally susceptible to damage from UV rays. Pay extra attention to these body parts, especially if the skin is light-coloured:

  • Ears – primarily the ear tips and inside of the flaps (also called the pinna)
  • Nose and bridge of the muzzle
  • Belly and groin – these get exposed when dogs sunbath on their back
  • Any region with sparse hair, such as a body part recently shaved for a surgical procedure
  • Eyes – see our article on dog goggles (link)
Monitor your dog for sun irritation, especially their eyes, nose, ears and abdomen. Apply sun protection as needed.

Amount of sun exposure

Dogs engaged in outdoor activities in the middle of the day ( in particular between 10am and 4pm) and/or of long duration, have greater exposure to UV light. In regions far from the equator, this exposure is much greater, as expected, during the summer months; and is a concern year-round in regions closer to the equator. Regardless of where you adventure, your outdoorsy pup may benefit significantly from sun protection measures.

Dogpacking at high altitude increases sun uv ray exposure

Signs of sun damage in dogs

Sunburn in dogs can appear subtle or alarming: redness, swelling, increased thickness (actinic keratosis) and blistering can occur, particularly in areas with sparse hair coverage. Recognizing these signs early on and protecting the area from further sun exposure is pivotal in preventing discomfort and more severe complications including development of skin cancer (squamous cell carcinoma). If a sunburn is suspected in your dog, consult your veterinarian, as medical treatment may be necessary.

Choosing a dog-friendly sunscreen

We recommend using a sunscreen labelled as safe for use on dogs, such as Dermoscent SunFREE. If a dog-specific product is not available in your country, here are selection guidelines:

  • AVOID these toxic sunscreen ingredients: zinc oxide, octyl salicylate, or para-aminobenzioc acid (PABA), which can cause serious health risks to a dog if ingested.
  • Choose fragrance-free products to avoid skin irritations
  • Ideally non-greasy formulations are preferred to avoid dust collection
  • Water-resistant properties: this reduce the risk of the sun protection being washed off when the dog swims
  • If veterinary products are not available, consider non-zinc-containing sunscreens safe for use in infants as they will have the ideal properties listed above along with a high SPF such as SunBum and Banana Boat sunscreens
A dog-friendly sunscreen is free of zinc, PABA and octyl salicylate. Photo: Krista Halling

How to apply sunscreen to your dog

  • Avoid ingestion: Dogs may attempt to lick off the applied sunscreen. Distract them during and after application for at least 15 minutes, to allow for absorption
  • Focus on at-risk areas: Prioritize sunscreen application to areas with thin hair or no hair (especially the nose, abdomen, and ears). Exercise caution around the eyes and mouth, using pet-friendly products that won’t cause irritation.
  • Creams are likely easier to accurately apply than a spray, especially while avoiding the eyes. If you do reach for a spray sunscreen, please verify that none of the ingredients are toxic to dogs.
  • Routine inspection: Regularly inspect your dog’s skin for any signs of sun damage and reapply sunscreen as needed, particularly after water activities. If you suspect a sunburn, check with your veterinarian, as medical treatment may be required.

Alternatives to sunscreen

If dog-friendly sunscreen is unavailable, consider the following tips to mitigate sun damage to your dog’s skin:

  • Wearing a t-shirt or lightweight coat – you may need to keep it wet to keep your dog cool in the sun
  • Wearing a nose protector
  • Avoiding, if possible, outdoor activity during peak sunlight hours (10am to 4pm)
  • Seeking shade during high-UV periods. This can also be achieved using a sun umbrella
  • Wearing dog goggles to protect their eyes (link to dog goggle article)
Dog nose protector. Photo: dognoseprotector.com.
Dog goggles can mitigate sun damage to eyes

While the necessity of sunscreen for dogs varies, acknowledging and addressing their unique sun safety needs will help keep their skin protected while enjoying sunny dogpacking adventures. 

About the authors

Krista Halling is a veterinarian Board-Certified by the American College of Veterinary Surgeons and co-founder of Dogpacking.com.

Tami Packham is a veterinary assistant at the VADER (Veterinary Allergy Dermatology Ear Referral) Clinic in Morriston, Ontario, Canada.

Anthony Yu is a veterinarian Board-Certified by the American College of Veterinary Dematologists and co-founder of the VADER Clinic in Morriston, Ontario, Canada. 

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