Sun Protection Basics for Your Pet

Living in Southern California has many benefits, including year-round access to comfortable weather and seemingly endless sunshine.

Although the health and lifestyle of both people and pets generally benefits from consistently temperate weather, there are some disadvantages to existing in an environment that’s so constantly sunny.  Exposure to sun can lead to a variety of mild to severe health problems for pets of all ages, breeds (or mixed breeds), and sizes.

In this article, I’ll share some of my top veterinary tips to help prevent your pet from suffering adverse health consequences secondary to sun exposure.

Is exposure to the sun dangerous to my pet?

Yes, exposure to the sun can be dangerous for your pet depending on his duration of exposure and ability to overcome the effects the sun has on the skin and whole-body health.

Many pets love to lounge in the sun and reasonable sunbathing can have health-yielding benefits such as increasing body temperature, cardiac output, tissue oxygenation, nutrient delivery, and removal of toxins.  Yet, there are plenty of other ways of achieving the above effects, such as engaging in mild to moderate exercise, that generally will achieve the same result and are safer than soaking up in the sun in a literal sense.

Unlike humans, dogs don’t produce vitamin D in the skin upon exposure to the sun’s ultraviolet rays and must consume sufficient vitamin D from foods and supplements to meet energetic needs. So, although the idea of your dog seeking the sun to generate vitamin D is a nice fantasy, it’s not a reality.

Exposure to the sun can cause hyperthermia, which occurs when the body temperature elevates above the normal range (100-102.5F).  Hyperthermia occurring to the degree that body temperature increases to 104F and above and lasts longer than a few minutes has many health consequences, including, dehydration, organ failure, delayed blood clotting, collapse, seizure, coma, and even death.

The sun’s ultraviolet rays can burn the surface or deeper layers of skin.  Lethargy, difficulty moving, decreased appetite, behavioral changes, pain, and skin redness (erythema), swelling (edema), blistering, and oozing are all associated with sun burns or from lying down on sun-baked surfaces.

Of greatest concern are the sun’s effects that may not initially be obvious.  Ultraviolet light (UVA, UVB, other wavelengths) damages cells’ DNA and cause genetic mutations that can develop into benign or malignant cancer.  Benign cancer is less-likely to spread but can still be locally invasive, while malignant cancer can be locally invasive and more likely to spread to other organ systems. Basal Cell Tumor, Cutaneous Lymphoma, Squamous Cell Carcinoma (SCC), Mast Cell Tumor, Melanoma, and others are examples of malignant cancers affecting canines and felines that can have life-altering repercussions that could otherwise be avoided if the appropriate precautions are taken.

Dog sun bathing as therapy to relieve itchy skin

©istockphoto/ThamKC

Are some pets more prone to health problems related to sun exposure?

Yes, puppies and kittens, seniors (those age seven and older), and mobility compromised pets are typically more prone to health consequences from sun exposure.  They generally have thinner coats of hair, may have underlying disease affecting skin health (hyper- and hypothyroidism, Cushing’s disease, kidney and liver disease, etc.), and are less-able to move themselves away from sunny spots into the protective shade.

Additionally, cats and dogs having light coat colors and pale skin are more prone to the adverse effects of solar radiation.  Light coat colors absorbs less sun than dark hair, so more sun will potentially contact the skin’s surface. Pale skin lacks the same degree of melanin as pigmented skin, so ultraviolet rays can singe the surface and penetrate into deeper layers.

Pets that seek sunny locations to lounge, both inside and out, need extra attention on behalf of their owners to provide sufficient sun protection.  Although your canine or feline companion may love to bask in the afternoon sun casting upon your porch or streaming through your windows owners must prevent chronic solar exposure for the sake of pet health.

How can I protect my pet from the sun’s dangerous rays?

Awareness of the potential for sun-related health problems is the first step.  Besides the above-mentioned examples of at-risk pets, those living in climates having frequent sunny days or at high altitudes have greater potential for sun-associated health consequences.

Seeking shade instead of the sun is the best means of keeping our pets safe from sun damage.  This means providing indoor and outdoor environments that are covered instead of permitting your pet to perpetually reside in sunny locations.

Pets may not recognize when enough sun is too much, so owners must intervene to provide appropriate protection.  This means drawing the shades, putting up an umbrella, fitting your canine or feline friend with a pet-appropriate cloth covering (light-colored shirt, breathable jacket, etc.), or coercing him into a shady spot via positive reinforcement (food treat, verbal praise, etc.).

Additionally, your dog’s eyes can be protected from the sun’s harmful rays by protective eyewear like Doggles.  Although Doggles are marketed for our canine companions, cats can also sport the shades if they are sized appropriately and well-tolerated.

Pets can wear sunscreen and the best option is one that provides adequate coverage while minimizing potential for toxicity.  Since the skin can absorb substances that end up on its surface and pets are prone to licking off substances that get on their skin and coat, owners should avoid products containing ingredients known to be toxic, like salicylates, zinc oxide, and others.

Epi-Pet Sun Protector Sunscreen is currently the only product that meets the Food & Drug Administration standards of safety for dogs and horses.  The product should not be used on cats, as our feline friends are very sensitive to salicylates, which can cause kidney damage and other internal ailments.  The American Kennel Club (AKC) recommends applying sunscreen 30 minutes before outdoor exposure.

Avoiding being outside during times of greatest sun exposure, generally between 10 AM and 2 PM, is another smart strategy.

For most pets, taking a multifaceted approach incorporating multiple lifestyle choices is the best plan.  There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to sun protection, so partner with your veterinarian to come up with a strategy that best suits your pet’s individual needs.

Meet the Author: Patrick Mahaney

Dr. Patrick Mahaney VMD, CVA, CVJ is a veterinarian and certified veterinary acupuncturist providing services to Los Angeles-based clients both on a house call and in-clinic basis. Dr. Mahaney’s unique approach integrating eastern and western medical perspectives has evolved into a concierge house call practice, California Pet Acupuncture and Wellness (CPAW), Inc. Additionally, Dr. Mahaney offers holistic treatment for canine and feline cancer patients at the Veterinary Cancer Group (Culver City, CA).

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