Who among us isn’t, after a long, tough, lockdown winter, yearning for those lazy, hot summer days that are around the corner? OK, so admittedly the weather has been a bit stop-start the last few weeks, leaving us reaching for the sunglasses one minute, and the earmuffs and mittens the next.

But if you are anything like me, all your summer gear is on standby, and sunscreen is stocked up. We all know the health risks of excessive sun exposure in people, but are they the same in dogs and cats?  Can they get sunburnt? And, as with people, does sun exposure increase the risk of certain types of skin cancers? And will sunscreen protect your pet?

First, a public service announcement 

Before we get to the nitty gritty of sun protection for pets, this is the obligatory reminder to keep your pet out of direct sunlight during the hottest times of the day. Dogs, especially, are at risk of heatstroke if they are exercised when the temperature is only as high as 200c-230c.  If they are a French Bulldog, Boxer or Chow, or overweight the danger is even more acute.

14.2% of dogs that are admitted to the vets with heatstroke sadly die1, that is a very scary 1 in 6. Heatstroke is easily avoidable if you restrict dog walking to the early morning or evening on hot days. And never, ever, leave your dog in the car on a hot day. Even for a few minutes. Sunscreen will not protect your pet from getting heatstroke. 

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Do dogs and cats get sunburn? 

Just like us, all animals can get sunburn. Although your pet’s fur does a very good job of protecting them against harmful UV rays, all pets can get sunburnt where the hair is thinner (such as the groin and muzzle in dogs). Just as with people with fairer complexion (like me), dogs and cats with areas of pink skin and white fur are the most at risk of severe sunburn, particularly around the face, ears, and muzzle. There is evidence that shows sunscreen does protect dogs from sunburn and it probably protects cats too. 

How can you tell if your pet has been sunburnt? 

Their skin may become pinker than usual after spending time in direct sunlight. They may shake their head if their ears are affected, rub a sunburnt muzzle, or lick sore parts. If you suspect your pet may have sunburn, it is best to get them checked by your vet. But prevention is definitely preferable to cure, so a dab of pet-friendly sunscreen is recommended on areas where the hair is thin, especially if the skin is pink (unpigmented) as well as keeping your pet out of direct sunlight. 

And what about skin cancer? 

The link between exposure to ultraviolet radiation (UVR) and skin cancers, including squamous cell carcinoma (SCC), basal cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma is very well established in people. In dogs, however, this cause and effect has yet to be proved. Although malignant melanoma is unfortunately commonly diagnosed in dogs, it has not been linked to sun damage. SCC is much rarer in dogs, making cause and effect even harder to prove. 

Cats are a different story. SCC is very commonly seen in cats with white ears, nose, and eyelids, as in these areas the underlying skin is almost always pink and is clearly related to exposure to UV. One study way back in the 1970s showed that white cats living in California were 13.4 times more likely to develop SCC through sun exposure than cats of a darker coat colour2. SCC is an aggressive tumour and will spread to other parts of the body in about 40% of cases. 

Whether regular sunscreen application protects against skin cancers has not been proven in cats or dogs (or even people!). However, as cats are notorious sun worshippers, vets will recommend that all cats with pink ears, eyelids and nose have sunscreen applied to these sensitive areas on sunny days. We vets see SCC so commonly in white cats, anything that may help prevent SCC should be tried. That and, of course, keeping your cat indoors and out of direct sunlight. 

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OK, so which is the best sunscreen to use? 

Pets are going to lick off any cream applied, so never use human sunscreen on your pets. These contain ingredients that are likely to be toxic if ingested. It is safer to stick to sunblock especially formulated for animals. The higher the SPF the better and ideally over 30. It will be more effective, and your pet won’t be worrying about tan lines. A word of caution though; double-check before purchase that the pet sunscreen can be used on cats as some are for doggy (and horse) use only. 

Regular sunscreen application can certainly protect your pet against unpleasant sunburn and maybe against skin cancer, particularly in those with more susceptible skin types. But remember to never rely on sunscreen alone to keep your pet safe in the sun and always keep them in the shade during the hottest times of the day. 

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References: 

  1. Hall EJ, Carter AJ, O’Neill DG. Incidence and risk factors for heat-related illness (heatstroke) in UK dogs under primary veterinary care in 2016. Sci Rep. 2020;10(1):1-12. doi:10.1038/s41598-020-66015-8
  2. Dorn CR, Taylor DON, Schneider R. Sunlight Exposure and Risk of Developing Cutaneous and Oral Squamous Cell Carcinomas in White Cats. JNCI J Natl Cancer Inst. 1971;46(5):1973-1078. doi:10.1093/jnci/46.5.1073