Can Dogs Get Sunburn? Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Published August 2, 2022
Young woman with her Labrador dog

If your pets love to sunbathe or spend a lot of time outside, you may wonder if dogs can get sunburns. The answer is yes, even though they're covered in fur, dogs can get sunburns. The most common places dogs experience sun damage are their belly, inner thighs, and nose. While you can sometimes see the signs of a dog sunburn immediately after sun exposure, experts say the effects are typically cumulative. This means you may not see visible symptoms of the damage for many months or years, and each exposure to the sun puts your dog at risk for sunlight-induced cancer. If you spend a lot of time outdoors with your dog, it's important to understand the consequences of sunlight exposure and how you can help prevent dog sunburns.

Signs of Sunburn in Dogs

How can you tell if your dog has a sunburn? Generally, you'll notice the same signs you would on your own sunburned skin. However, this can be challenging given the fact that dogs are covered with fur. Some of the signs of sun damage can be relatively subtle, whereas others are more obvious.

Sunburn injury in a dog nose
  • Reddened, inflamed skin
  • Blistered skin
  • Dry, scaley skin
  • Skin thickening
  • Hair loss
  • Fever
  • Scratching or chewing
  • Signs of pain, like vocalizing or whimpering
  • Curling or cracking at the ends of the ears

What to Do if Your Dog Gets a Sunburn

It may be possible to treat mild dog sunburns at home. After removing your dog from the sun, you can place a cool, damp cloth over the sunburned area to soothe the skin. Calming ointments, such as aloe vera, coconut oil, or oatmeal-based products, can also provide some relief, but be cautious when using these. Only use an ointment designed specifically for dogs and never apply it to blistered skin or open sores. A cone can prevent your dog from licking ointment off the area. Monitor the sunburn and if you notice any swelling, discharge, or signs of pain, see your vet right away.

However, severe burns, such as those that leave the skin red or result in blisters, require medical attention and should be seen by your veterinarian promptly. If your dog shows any signs of heatstroke, they need emergency care. Secondary infections of the skin should be treated with appropriate antibiotics, and open sores or lesions may be cancerous and should be examined promptly.

Dogs at High Risk

Any dog can get a sunburn on exposed skin, but some dogs are more prone to sun damage due to their coat color or environment. Dogs at high risk include the following:

Dog Drinking Water From Plastic Bottle

Consequences of Sun Exposure in Dogs

Just as extended sun exposure can cause cancer in humans, the sun can have negative effects on a dog's body. From skin cancer to eye damage and even heatstroke, it's important for all dog owners to understand when a dog sunburn could be something more serious.

Solar Dermatitis

Continuous sun exposure can lead to cumulative skin damage referred to as solar dermatitis. Dogs with this condition often have thickened, bumpy skin with ulcerated lesions or "blackhead" like spots. It's most commonly seen on the belly, inner thighs, armpits, and muzzle. Solar dermatitis can be mistaken for other skin conditions like allergies. Treatment usually involves keeping your pet out of the sun and addressing any broken skin or secondary infections.

Cutaneous Hemangiosarcoma

Cutaneous hemangiosarcoma is a form of skin cancer that dogs can develop from solar exposure. This malignant cancer looks like a small red or black growth on the skin and is most frequently found on a dog's underside. It may bleed on and off, which can be uncomfortable for your dog and frustrating for you. Not only this, but there is a risk that cutaneous hemangiosarcoma can spread to other organs, so prompt removal by your veterinarian is usually recommended.

Hemangioma

While the name may sound intimidating, hemangiomas are benign. They are growths made up of blood vessels and often look like a red or black blood blister. Even though these tumors are non-cancerous, they can ulcerate, causing bleeding and discomfort, which is why many owners elect to have them removed.

Shaving cutaneous mass in a dog abdomen with a razor

Squamous Cell Carcinoma

Squamous cell carcinomas are a fast-growing cancer that can be caused by sun exposure. These tumors have a red, cauliflower-like appearance and can occur anywhere on a dog's body, although the abdomen, legs, nose, and between the toes are the most common places. Squamous cell carcinomas are malignant and should be removed promptly to prevent the mass from growing or spreading to the surrounding tissues.

Pannus

Pannus, or chronic superficial keratitis, is an inflammatory eye condition that is exacerbated by sun exposure. Corneal tissue is affected, which leads to scarring and, if left untreated, blindness. The first signs of pannus you may notice are cloudiness and a pinkish film over the eye globe. Pannus cannot be cured, but medicated eye drops can help manage the symptoms. German Shepherd Dogs and Border Collies are at an increased risk for this condition, as well as those dogs that spend time in the sun or at high altitudes.

Heat Stroke

If your dog is out in the sun for an extended period of time or sustains a bad sunburn, they're at risk for heat stroke. Dogs with heat stroke have an elevated internal temperature, which can result in organ failure and death if treatment is not initiated. If your dog shows signs of heat stroke after being sunburned, such as heavy panting, excessive drooling, vomiting, red gums, or disorientation, it's critical you see your vet right away.

How to Protect Your Dog from the Sun

Prevention is the best way to protect your pet from the sun. Implement these tips to prevent your dog from getting sunburned.

Dog on beach under shade of a parasol
  • Limit your dog's outdoor exposure between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., which are peak UV hours. Short bathroom breaks are fine, but schedule longer walks or park time outside these hours.
  • Install a sunshade or canopy in your backyard so your pet can escape the sun.
  • If your dog enjoys sunbathing indoors, place UV-blocking films on windows.
  • Use canine sunglasses to protect your dog's eyes from the sun, particularly in reflective terrain like snow or water or when at high elevation.
  • If your dog has sparse or short hair, use a UV body suit or shirt to protect their exposed skin.
  • Use a pet-safe sunscreen on vulnerable areas like your dog's belly, inner thighs, ear tips, and the skin above their nose. Hairless dogs will need sunblock applied to their back, neck, and tail, too.

Dog-safe Sunscreen Options

Human sunscreens are not safe for dogs. The ingredients used in human products can be toxic when ingested by an animal, and, unfortunately, dogs have a tendency to lick anything you apply to their skin. Always choose a product formulated especially for dogs, but carefully assess the ingredient list. Even some products touted as being "pet-safe" contain compounds that can upset your pup's stomach. Avoid any dog sunblock that contains zinc oxide or salicylates.

Dog sunscreen comes in many forms. You can choose from sunscreen sticks, wipes, spray, or traditional lotion sunblock. Choose the form you feel your pet will tolerate best and select a waterproof formula if your dog will be in the water. After you apply the sunscreen, wait about 10 to 15 minutes before going into the sun and reapply often. If you're searching for a veterinarian-approved sunscreen brand, know that Epi-Pet is the only FDA-authorized dog sunscreen currently on the market.

Keep Your Dog Safe from Sunburn

Any time you take safety measures to protect your skin from the sun, make sure you take the same precautions for your dog. Keep your pets out of the sun during peak hours, protect their exposed skin and eyes, and use a dog-safe sunscreen. Minimizing their sun exposure can help prevent life-threatening cancers, so you can enjoy many more happy years together.

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Can Dogs Get Sunburn? Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention