Dr. Allison Foster is keen on helping pet owners understand the risks and signs of skin damage so they can keep their animals safe.
"It's important to have annual check-ups so your veterinarian can look for changes in your animal's skin – especially since the changes can be subtle," says Foster, a clinical associate in dermatology at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine's Veterinary Medical Centre.
Just like humans, dogs can get sunburns that can be painful and uncomfortable. These burns also increase their risk of developing skin cancer – something that can be successfully treated if diagnosed early.
Foster explains that there are varying levels of sun exposure and damage. If your pet does get sunburned, you should consult with your veterinarian to discuss treatments and future preventtive skin care. For dogs and cats that have skin damage from chronic sun exposure, therapies may be available for pre-cancerous and cancerous changes.
Foster recommends that owners do what they can to prevent sun damage.
"Avoidance is key," says Foster.
Here are some tips for owners who enjoy spending time outside with their pets:
• Dogs with short, light-coloured coats (such as dalmations, pitbulls, white boxers and American bulldogs) and cats with white coats are more susceptible to sunburns so be particularly careful with these animals when you're outside.
• Sunburns are most likely to occur where there is no hair (nose, paws and around the eyes), where there is thinner hair (tips of the ear, muzzle, lips and groin area), and in non-pigmented areas (lighter spots in the hair/skin and around the eyes).
• Apply sunscreen to unprotected areas of skin (such as the ears and nose) and re-apply sunscreen regularly (as directed).
• Human sunscreens may contain ingredients that can be harmful to both dogs and cats (zinc oxide, octyl salicylate, homosalate and ethylhexyl salicylate). Always check with your veterinarian before using a product to ensure it is appropriate for your pet. If available, use sunscreen products that are designed specifically for animals.
- If you can't find a pet-specific sunscreen, you might be able to use one that is for children/infants but check with your veterinarian first. Dogs and cats may have a tendency to lick or ingest sunscreen, so it's best to make sure it's safe.
• Be careful when taking your animal on the water (or in a boat). The reflection of UV rays off the water can cause extra exposure and damage to your pet's skin.
• Avoid being outside during periods of intense sun – generally between 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. (times can vary depending on where you live). Keep animals in shaded areas when possible.
• Don't be fooled by going out on cloudy days. UV rays can penetrate the clouds, and your pet is still at risk.
• Keep water readily available. Animals that are outside and active get dehydrated easily.
As an owner, there are a few things to look for that may indicate sun damage. Redness and scaliness affecting sparsely haired areas and lesions that won't heal (particularly on the ears, nose or around the eyes) are all common signs.
Spending time in the sun can also amplify or trigger the onset of other conditions. " UV exposure can potentially cause or exacerbate the symptoms of certain autoimmune skin diseases in animals, such as discoid lupus erythematosus or pemphigus erythematosus," says Foster.
If your pet likes to sunbathe, as many animals do, Foster recommends that owners use a sunsuit or bodysuit on their pet. She adds that some animals prefer lying on one side — exposing certain areas of skin to the sun more often.
"Some animals will also lick off sunscreen, and it's not something you can control. If that's the case with your pet, consider using a sunsuit or bodysuit ," Foster suggests.
Sunsuits and bodysuits are made of light, breathable fabric that also blocks UV rays. Animal-specific clothing can offer additional skin protection but make sure your dog doesn't overheat.
For more information about protecting your animals from the sun, contact your local veterinarian.
Sarah Figley is a second-year veterinary student from Saskatoon, Sask., and was the WCVM's research communications intern for the summer of 2014.