Can Dogs Get Sunburned?

Just like humans, most land-dwelling animals can acquire sunburns, and canines are certainly no exception. Interestingly, many animals exposed to high temperatures have acquired adaptations to evade or prevent overexposure. From the black tongue of giraffes to the mud-coating behavior of rhinos, non-domesticated animals have developed a number of ingenious ways of living under the sun’s harmful UV rays. Domesticated animals, on the other hand, don’t have such sophisticated approaches, other than seeking shade when the rays become too intense.

Whether in dogs or in humans, fair-skinned individuals are classified as “high risk” for sunburn due to lower levels of melanin in their skin. This skin-darkening pigment serves as a natural genetic remedy for preventing excessive UV-induced genetic damage, and is higher in darker colored skin. While melanin can be acquired through regular sun exposure or tanning, this period of melanin build-up requires repeated exposure over the course of several weeks, if not months, depending on the individual and level of sun exposure. If you have ever wondered, “Can dogs get sunburned?”, this post is for you.

Is Your Dog at Risk?

Light Fur: Light-haired dogs have light skin, lower levels of melanin, and a higher risk of sunburn. Comparatively, dark-haired dogs have dark skin, higher levels of melanin, and a lower risk of sunburn.

Short or Thin Fur: But fur color isn’t the only factor, fur length and thickness should also be considered. Logically, dog breeds with short or thin fur are at a higher risk of sunburn, compared to dogs with long or thick fur. This makes sense given that more fur means better coverage.

No Fur: And it goes without saying, hairless dog breeds have the highest propensity for sunburns. If you have a hairless dog and live in a sunny climate, be sure to take additional measures to protect your dog’s exposed skin.

  • Hairless Dog Breeds: Chinese Crested, American Hairless Terrier, Peruvian Inca Orchid

Puppies: Regardless of fur color, length, or thickness, puppies have sensitive skin that has little if no protection for UV rays. Just as you would take additional measures to protect a newborn baby, it is important to adopt added precautions to protect puppies and young dogs from overexposure as well.

Medical Conditions: This includes, but is not limited to alopecia, atopic dermatitis, flea infestation, fungal infection, and dogs with autoimmune diseases. Dogs with scar tissue, as well as skin exposed from a recent surgery, are also more vulnerable to canine sunburn.

Causes of Sunburn

A sunburn is a type of radiation injury caused by the harmful penetration of ultraviolet (UV) light, most commonly from the sun. As skin absorbs UV light, DNA directly absorbs these individual light particles, or photons. This not only causes potentially irreversible damage, but also elicits an inflammatory reaction, resulting in increased melanin production. Although the damage to DNA is not visible, repeated overexposure is the leading cause of skin cancer, and yes, dogs can get that too! Fortunately, cancer does not happen overnight; in fact, it takes several years to develop. What does happen immediately is inflammation, leading to red, hot, tender, and possibly even swollen skin. Once healed, increased melanin levels help to safeguard against similar damage in the near future. However, while melanin is a natural way to protect against a sunburn, it does not prevent it altogether.  

Symptoms

Physically, sunburn symptoms are no different in dogs than they are in humans. Also, be on the lookout for behavioral signs associated with increased sensitivity or canine pain.

Physical Signs

  • Visibly red or reddened skin
  • Fur that is visibly lighter
  • Skin that is dry, cracked, crusty, blistering or peeling
  • Curling at the edges of the ears

Behavior Signs

  • Continual scratching in the same, tender area
  • Whimpering or shrinking away upon petting
  • Difficulty walking normally, if the paws are affected
  • Slight fever, if severe (Normal Dog Body Temperature: 101-102.5°F)

Each stated symptom may individually vary on a scale of mild, moderate, or severe. As with any illness, a higher degree of severity is typically indicated when more than one symptom occurs at the same time or in close succession. If you notice one symptom, immediately check for others. Whenever the level of severity is uncertain, consult your veterinarian.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Thankfully, the majority of sunburns are easily diagnosed. One thing to keep in mind is that dogs do not burn as easily as people. If you notice a visible sunburn, it is almost always more problematic than the eye can see. For this reason, veterinary care is recommended in all cases of obvious canine sunburn. When you take your dog to the vet, these are the types of solutions you can expect:   

  • Cold compresses provide immediate pain relief.
  • Prescription of a cortisone ointment helps to reduce inflammation.
  • Prescription of a topical antibacterial and antifungal agent works to prevent infection.
  • Supportive therapy through intravenous fluids are performed in cases of extreme sunburn or heat exhaustion.
  • If severe, a topical gel-based medication may be prescribed for daily wound cleansing.

Natural Ways to Heal a Sunburn

While veterinary care is recommended, light or barely visible sunburns are not usually a medical emergency. In the event a trip to the veterinarian is not necessary or feasible, there are a number of natural ways to relieve your dog’s inflammation.

  • Aloe Vera: While general aloe vera creams and gels are safe to use as a means of immediate relief and expedited healing, ingestion is toxic. For this reason, it is important to only apply aloe vera to your dog when able to physically prevent licking shortly after. To prevent involuntary ingestion, avoid using aloe vera close to the eyes, nose, mouth, and inner ears.
  • Cold Compress: Soak a clean cloth in ice cold water and apply the compress to the affected area in 15-minute intervals. You can also use an ice cube, ice pack, or bag of frozen peas – they all do the trick. Importantly, make sure not to apply the ice directly to the sunburn, as this could inflict excess drying.
  • Cold Bath: If the burned area is widespread, consider a cold bath as an alternative to the above. While you want to make the bath as cold as possible, ice is not necessary. Similar to a cold compress, limit the bath to a maximum of 15 minutes. If cleansing as well, be certain to use mild soaps suitable for sensitive skin and apply gently.
  • Oatmeal Bath: If you ever had the chicken pox as a child, you probably had an oatmeal bath. Regardless of skin condition, and whether in humans or dogs, oatmeal baths are known to provide soothing, instant relief. Using only lukewarm or cool water, let your dog soak as long as possible.
  • Over-The-Counter Sprays: To temporarily relieve sunburn pain, consider using cooling sunburn relief sprays. Be warned, many of these sprays contain aloe vera, which is poisonous to dogs.
  • Witch Hazel: Safe for dogs, and without the sting of rubbing alcohol, witch hazel is an effective solution for quick sunburn relief. To apply, lightly soak a cotton ball and gently dab the affected area. Repeat three to four times per day.

Choosing a Dog-Safe Sunscreen

When shopping for a sunscreen suitable for your dog, check that the fragrance-free, non-staining solution contains both UVA and UVB barriers. Additionally, the sunscreen should have a minimum SPF of 15 and not contain Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) or Zinc Oxide. Both chemicals are common ingredients in most human-grade sunscreens and can result in serious health complications upon canine ingestion. As a general rule, only consider sunscreen that is either made for dogs or babies with sensitive skin.