Living in Australia, the importance of sun safety has been drilled into us for years. But how important is sun protection for dogs? Keeli Cambourne investigates.
Slip, slop, slap isn’t just for humans its also a message we should keep in mind for our four-legged friends. They may be covered in fur, but the sun can do some serious damage to dogs if they’re not properly protected in the heat of summer.
And while we can escape into air-conditioned comfort, dogs are often left outside in the blazing sun. “Any dog can get sunburn,” says Dr Jade Norris, RSPCA Australia Scientific Officer. “But hairless dogs, white- and-pink skinned pets, white and light-haired pets and short and thin-haired pets are particularly susceptible. Outside living pets and shaved pets are also more susceptible.”
Norris says any exposed area of a dog can get sunburned, especially where there is white or pink skin, but the most susceptible places are the ears (both outer and inner surfaces), nose, lips, snout, eyelids, and chest. “Some dogs like to lie in the sun on their backs, and can get burnt on the belly area and inner thighs, where the hair is generally thin,” she says. “And as the concrete can reflect UV rays, male dogs can also suffer from sunburn on their scrotum.”
Of course, prevention is better than cure but its not always possible to be there to catch the beginnings of bad dose of sunburn. And with all that hair its often hard to tell if your dog has actually spent too much time in the midday sun without your knowing. “Sunburned skin in dogs generally looks like it does in humans red and inflamed and there may also be hair loss in the sunburned area,” Norris says.
“There may also be scaling, flaking and the area may feel hot. The sunburned skin may be painful and uncomfortable and may also become itchy. Unfortunately, once these signs appear damage has already been done,” Norris says.
Just like humans, sunburn on dogs can have nasty consequences. UV radiation is a factor in some dog cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma, a malignant cancer which can spread to other parts of the body. Another cancer thought to be UV-induced is dermal haemangiosarcoma.
With such dire consequences, its important that if you suspect your dog has a case of sunburn you seek treatment as soon as possible. “You should see your vet if you think your dog is sunburned. They should be able to dispense some creams to soothe the area and can provide any other necessary treatments. You should also try to keep your pet out of the sun because it can cause even more damage to the already burned tissue,” Norris says.
If your dog is unlucky enough to be diagnosed with a skin cancer, it doesn’t necessarily mean a death sentence. “Just like humans, we treat each dog and its skin cancer on a case-by-case basis,” says Norris. “The treatment they receive is determined by the type of cancer they have and the stage to which it has progressed.”
The type of treatment the animal gets also depends on its age and whether it has any underlying medical conditions. Treatment could involve supportive care, palliative care, surgery, chemotherapy or a combination of these. Norris says certain types of UV-associated cancers can unfortunately be fatal as they usually spread to other parts of the body or other organs.
Protecting your pet from the sun can be as simple as making sure you keep them out of the sun during the hottest parts of the day either by bringing them inside or providing a shelter or shade to which they can escape if you’re not home.
There are also a number of products on the market to make the job of keeping your dog sun safe a lot easier. Pet-specific sunscreens are designed just for dogs and these are the only ones that should be used, Norris says. They are available from your local vet and should ideally be waterproof, protect against UVA and UVB and be fragrance-free.
“Don’t use a human sunblock,” she says. “Some substances in these can be toxic to animals and dogs also tend to lick sunscreen off, especially when it is applied to their face. Zinc oxide in human sunblock can cause zinc toxicity if the dog ingests a certain amount. So for dogs, avoid zinc-containing creams and avoid PABA-containing creams. Its best to speak with your vet if you have any questions about specific sunscreen products and before using any human products on your pet to ensure they are safe for pets.”
There’s also a technique to applying sunscreen to your dog. Just like kids, dogs can get a little excited when attention is focused on them so Norris suggests that, when you’re ready to put the sunscreen on, try to distract your pet so it wont lick it off straight away. “Try to have a little play or offer him some food as a treat,” she says. “But it you’re about to go for a walk, its probably best not to feed them a full meal as a distraction because they can get some serious stomach upsets.”
Doggy sunblock, however, only protects your pets to a certain extent, especially for dogs with totally white skin or sparse hair. Also, some dogs do have allergic reactions to sunblocks and it is something that can only be ascertained through trial and error.
It’s best to take a holistic approach to protecting your dogs from the sun, starting with limited exposure to the sun especially between 10am-3pm. There should also be sheltered or shaded areas in the yard and, if possible, keep your dog inside on hot, sunny, humid days.
For those who want to take the protection to an even greater level, you can apply a tint to windows to reduce UVA and UVB radiation exposure. “Owners can try things like hats but some dogs will often not tolerate these and become distressed, and dogs often do not like sunglasses on their faces,” Norris says. “There are some dog sunsafe suits (UV protection gear) available on the market or owners may like to try a sun protection T-shirt, but they need to make sure their dog is comfortable, not distressed, and can move around and breathe freely.”
Other summer nasties
Sunburn isn’t the only thing to watch out for in the heat of summer. Heatstroke occurs when heat generation exceeds the body’s ability to dissipate heat.
“Heatstroke is very serious and can be fatal,” Norris says. “It can lead to multiple organ damage or failure involving the liver, kidneys, gastrointestinal tract, blood system and the central nervous system (brain).”
There are a number of predisposing factors to heatstroke, including hot and humid weather, exercise (especially when done in a hot and humid environment) and confinement in poorly ventilated areas such as cars.
“One study found that even on mild days the temperature inside the vehicle rises rapidly to dangerous levels,” Norris explains. “The study found that when the ambient temperature is 22C the temperature inside a car can rise to over 47C in 60 minutes.”
Dogs can also be at risk of heatstroke if they are obese, have respiratory disease, heart disease, neurological conditions, or if they have an obesity problem. Short-nosed dog breeds also need to be watched more closely. “Its important owners keep a close eye on their pets on hot, humid days to catch the signs of heatstroke before they can turn serious,” Norris says.
There are relatively clear signs for heatstroke although they can vary between individual dogs. They include incessant panting, weakness, fatigue, vomiting, diarrhoea, muscle tremors, muscle spasms, signs of mental confusion, delirium, staggering, collapsing and lying down.
If you suspect your dog is suffering from heatstroke its important to start treatment as soon as possible to try and normalise the body temperature, and this can be done at home relatively simply. Apply or spray tepid to cool water onto the dogs fur and skin, then fan the wet fur. Don’t use cold water or ice as this can exacerbate the problem and put your dog into greater physical stress.
But its also important that owners seek veterinary help as soon as they can, as heatstroke can be a very serious condition. “Given the seriousness of this condition, it is better to be safe than sorry and have the dog checked out by a vet. Owners may instigate emergency cooling at home but then make their way to the vet clinic,” Norris says.
The vet will also take measures to normalise the body temperature and monitor the dogs vital signs closely for any signs of organ damage. They may also start an intravenous drip to replace any fluids that the dog may have lost due to excessive panting or even vomiting.
Like sunburn, heatstroke is a highly preventable condition. Always provide your pets with a cool, shaded area with good ventilation, and make sure there is enough clean water with extra water sources for hot days. On those really hot days, bring dogs indoors where the environment is cooler and never leave a dog in a vehicle, even when the windows are down, because they can still overheat and die in less than an hour in extreme cases.
There are also a number of other heat or sun-related problems that dogs can suffer from in the summer. Dehydration can lead to heatstroke. Its important to make sure there is plenty of clean, fresh water around for pets, enough to cope with any spillage. Some dogs like to sit in cool water or splash themselves so, if possible, try and provide a larger water container that allows them to do this.
It doesn’t matter what age a dog is, they can all suffer from too much exposure to the sun. Older dogs may find the extreme heat tougher but younger dogs can be just as susceptible to heat-related illnesses and conditions.
By taking the proper precautions, you and your pooch can be free to enjoy all the opportunities for fun that the warmer months provide.