My first dog was a beautiful, completely spoiled little sun-worshipping Staffordshire Terrier so this topic is very close to my heart. In fact, nearly everyone who has owned a dog with access to the outdoors knows many love to sunbake!
In Australia, excessive UV exposure is possible year-round, so it is important for dog owners to understand the skin health risks associated with this, and how they can help their dog be sun smart.
Dogs that like to sunbathe are particularly at risk of UV damage to the skin. Commonly affected breeds include Bull Terriers, Boxers, Staffordshire Bull Terriers, Bull Arabs and any other breed or mix with a short, white or light-coloured hair coat. This coat-type is at risk because the skin lacks the UV-absorbing protection of a good hair cover plus poorly pigmented skin does not contain much melanin, which is the pigment responsible for absorbing UV light when it reaches the skin.
What is solar dermatitis?
Sun exposure causes damage to the skin, eventually resulting in a condition called Solar Dermatitis. Initially, sunburn in dogs looks much like sunburn in people and the skin becomes red and sore. After repeated sunburn episodes, the traumatised skin will start to thicken. Eventually, the skin starts to lose its normal structure and integrity. It becomes sensitive and prone to cracking, ulceration and bacterial infections.
These chronic changes are largely irreversible unless caught early and sun exposure is vastly reduced. Even then, the remaining solar dermatitis often forms the basis of an ongoing skin condition that requires ongoing treatment for months.
There is one type of skin cancer in dogs that is commonly associated with sun exposure. When solar dermatitis is present, small spots or larger areas of skin can appear red and scaly. These skin changes can be precancerous, with crusty lumps eventually progressing to cancerous squamous cell carcinomas. The most exposed skin is most severely affected. Intensive treatment with special creams can be attempted in some cases, however surgical removal is often required.
Preventing sun exposure is key
Preventing sun exposure from an early age in dogs that are likely to be prone to sunburn is important. The easiest way is to keep your dog out of the sun, especially in the middle of the day. This might mean keeping them completely indoors or providing an outdoor area where there is no option to sunbake. If you are unable or unwilling to keep your dog inside or completely in the shade during the day, it might be wise to avoid getting a white dog!
If complete shade is not possible then further measures need to be taken to minimise sun exposure. The belly skin and insides of the legs are often high-risk areas, as there is usually less hair here.
A doggy T-shirt or bodysuit is a great way to keep the sun off and these are far more readily available now than they used to be. Some online suppliers to try include: www.bromellidogs.com.au/, www.fluppies.com.au/, www.designerdogwear.com/
Use sunscreen on your pet
Sunscreen is definitely required for exposed extremities like the nose and ears; however, it can also be used on the belly and other thinly haired parts of the body if clothing is not available or not tolerated.
Many dogs will need 15-20 minutes of distraction following the application of sunscreen to stop them from licking it straight off and allowing time for the cream to be absorbed into the skin. Dogs that are outside all day will need sunscreen re-applied every 3-4 hours, probably more often if they are keen to lick it off.
The nose is a tricky place to try and protect with sunscreen as dogs use their noses for everything and are also able to easily lick the front of their noses. A dog with a completely unpigmented nose would ideally be kept out of the sun as much as possible.
Some ingredients found in human sunscreen is toxic to dogs when ingested in large amounts (for example zinc oxide and para-amino benzoic acid). Given the likelihood of a dog licking at least some of their sunscreen, dog-specific products are preferable to human products.
Be a Sun Smart Dog:)