Warm summer weather means lots of fun outdoor activities, but it also means exposure to the sun’s harmful UV rays. It’s important to keep this in mind when planning your favourite summer activities with your dog.
Though summer is a time for plenty of outdoor adventures, the hot sun also poses some potential risks. Your dog can overheat, burn his paws on hot pavement, and even get a nasty sunburn.
You may think that your dog’s fur will provide protection from the sun. While this is true to some extent, they can still get a sunburn if they spend enough time outside on a hot summer day. Dog’s with shorter fur are more susceptible to a burn, and all dogs have delicate areas, like their nose, that has no protection at all.
What is a Dog Sunburn?
Your dog’s skin is just as sensitive to the sun as yours. While their fur gives them some protection, prolonged periods in the sun can still leave your dog with a nasty sunburn. But what is a sunburn?
A sunburn is an inflammatory reaction caused by prolonged exposure to UV radiation from the sun. This inflammation causes redness and swelling and eventually cell damage. As the cells in the outer layer of skin die, the skin will start to dry and peel.
Just like with humans, sunburns can have a cumulative effect, increasing your dog’s chances of developing skin cancer. That’s why it’s important to take every precaution to protect your dog from the sun.
Symptoms of Dog Sunburns
Despite your best efforts, your dog may still get a sunburn. Sunburns can be uncomfortable and sometimes even painful, so appropriate treatment is vital to healing the burn quickly and preventing further complications.
Fortunately, treating your dog’s sunburn won’t be all that different from treating one on yourself, but first, you need to know how to tell if your dog is sunburnt.
Being able to identify symptoms of a dog sunburn can help you apply the best treatments and avoid more severe reactions. There are varying degrees of sunburns on dogs, and some symptoms can easily be mistaken for other types of skin issues, like allergies or bug bites.
If you notice any of the following signs after your dog has spent time outside on a sunny day, then they may have a sunburn.
- Skin Sensitivity
- Dry Flaky Skin
Types of Dog Sunburns
A sunburn on you or I is quite evident. We can quickly tell when our skin starts to feel hot, itchy skin from the inflammatory response. On the other hand, your dog can’t tell you when he’s feeling the discomfort of a sunburn, so you need to be able to recognize the physical signs and severity of sunburns on your dog.
Superficial Partial Thickness Sunburns
The most common type of sunburn on dogs and people is a superficial burn. This type of sunburn damages the outermost layer of skin called the epidermis. These burns are generally more of an unpleasant nuisance than a painful sunburn, but that doesn’t mean they don’t pose a further risk of infection or skin damage if not properly treated.
Superficial burns can happen quickly, especially for dog breeds that are at a higher risk of sunburns. 30 minutes in the hot summer sun can lead to a superficial sunburn of your dog's more sensitive areas.
Deep Partial Thickness Sunburns
Similar to a superficial sunburn, partial-thickness burns will affect the top layers of the epidermis, but will also affect deeper into this layer. This burn can be a little harder to treat because cooling and treating the top layer of skin won’t necessarily stop the burn below the surface.
The visible symptoms are similar to superficial burns, but they may worsen over 2-5 days. Recurring treatment of the burn will be needed to stop the damage, reduce discomfort, and speed healing.
In rare cases, you may notice small blisters forming on the surface of your dog’s skin. This happens when the skin below the surface is damaged and is a natural part of the healing process.
Because of the greater severity of this type of sunburn, you should be on the lookout for signs of heatstroke in addition to the regular sunburn symptoms:
- Excessive Drooling
Full Thickness Sunburns
Similar to a third-degree burn in humans, full-thickness burns are rare but very serious and require immediate medical attention. This type of sunburn is so bad that it can reach the layer bottom layers of the epidermis, and possibly the layer beneath called the dermis.
Your dog will be in obvious pain, and you may notice visible signs of skin damage, like curling of the edges of their ears, blisters, or rashes. Full-thickness burns are often only seen in extreme cases of prolonged sun exposure.
Severe dog sunburns will continue to worsen over time if not treated properly by a vet, so call your vet at first signs of a sunburn to make sure you are treating the burn properly.
Dogs Breeds that Sunburn Easily
Some dogs are naturally more susceptible to getting a sunburn than others. A dog’s fur provides some protection, but different lengths, thickness, and types of hair may provide less natural protection that they need. Here are a few breeds that need more sun protection than others:
This one is pretty obvious, but dogs with little to no fur are in the highest risk category for dog sunburns. This is because they don’t have the natural protection from their fur that most breeds do. Their bare skin is highly sensitive to the hot sun, so limit their sun exposure and use sun protection gear to keep them safe and cool.
While there aren’t a lot of naturally hairless breeds, these naked pups should be extra cautious of sun exposure:
- Chinese Crested
- American Hairless Terrier
Not all bald dogs were born that way. Some dogs lose their hair due to health conditions, mange, or bacterial infections. In this case, the skin may be even more sensitive due to the potential damage that was already done by the condition that caused the fur loss.
Even short hair provides some level of sun protection, but often not quite enough. The short coat allows UV rays to penetrate, leading to sunburns. Some areas of their body will be at even risk, where the fur is the thinnest, like their ears, nose, and belly.
Here are some short-haired breeds that sunburn easily:
- American Staffordshire Terrier
Fair Skinned Dogs
White and lighter-coated dogs tend to have the fairest skin pigment, meaning their skin is at a higher risk of sun damage. While a long or double coat may reduce damage, their pink skin is still more sensitive to UV radiation.
- American Pitbull Terriers
- Bull Terriers
- French Bulldogs
Do Black Dogs Sunburn More?
While all dogs can get a sunburn, it’s commonly thought that black dogs attract more sun and are more likely to get burned. While black dogs may be at higher risk of overheating, the only reason they may be more susceptible to a sunburn is if they have short fur or fair skin that allows the sun to penetrate it. The colour of their fur, in this case, doesn’t have a significant effect.
Dog Nose Sunburn
Regardless of your dog’s breed, colour, or fur type, there is one universally sensitive area of your dog that is most likely to get sunburnt if they spend too much time in the hot summer sun - their nose.
Your dog’s nose is the most exposed area of his body, and it has no fur to protect it, so even dogs that are generally at low risk of sun exposure can still easily get a sunburnt schnoz. This should be the first area you consider when deciding how to protect your dog from the sun’s harmful rays.
How to Prevent Dog Sunburns
During the hottest months of the year is when the sun has the biggest potential for harm, but it’s also the best season for all of your favourite outdoor adventures with your mutt. So what do you do to protect your dog from the sun?
You can’t just shut them inside forever. Much of their exercise and playtime happen outdoors, so you need to find other ways to protect your dog from the sun while maintaining a regular routine.
Think of some of the things you do to keep yourself safe from the sun. Many of these practices can apply to your dog as well. Other summer gear is important to protect your dog from the hot sun.
Dog boots are recommended to protect your dog's tender paws from hot pavement, and cooling gear, like the Canada Pooch Chill Seeker Cooling Bandana, can help keep them cool on a long walk.
Let’s take a look at the top 5 ways to prevent dog sunburns:
1. Dog Sunscreen
We know that it’s a good idea to slather on some sunscreen before we spend hours baking in the sun, but what about your dog? Do dogs need to wear sunscreen?
Yes! Sunscreen is a great way to prevent sunburns on your dog so that you can keep exploring nature all summer long, but don’t use just any old sunscreen. Sunscreen made for humans typically contains ingredients, like zinc oxide, that are toxic to dogs when ingested.
According to Merck Veterinary Manual, "The ingestion of some forms of zinc causes the creation of toxic zinc salts in the acidic environment of the stomach."
These zinc salts lead to zinc toxicosis. Zinc toxicosis can lead to digestive issues, pancreatitis, and hemolytic anemia in dogs.
Even “natural” and “baby” sunscreens often contain this or other ingredients that are toxic to pets. If you are going to use sunscreen on dogs, make sure it is a natural pet-safe sunscreen specifically.
Dog Sunscreen Canada
You may be wondering why you haven’t found any dog sunscreen at your local pet store. It turns out there are very few Canadian dog sunscreens. This is because natural UV protection ingredients, like red raspberry leaf oil, are expensive and can be hard to source, and aren't proven to be as effective as the SPF products made for humans.
Fortunately, there are a few products in Canada, and our favourite is Parker & Co. Snout Screen. This all-natural sun protector stick can protect your dog's sensitive snout, delicate ears, and other small but high-risk areas of your dog's body.
DIY Dog Sunscreen
If you are having trouble finding a dog-safe sunscreen? You might be interested in trying your hand at a homemade recipe for dog-safe sun protection. Some of the ingredients may be hard to find and a little on the pricey side, but it may be the best and safest option for preventing dog sunburns.
- 1 oz Coconut Oil
- 1 oz Hemp Seed Oil
- ¼ oz Red Raspberry Oil
- ¼ oz Carrot Seed Oil
Put all ingredients in a double broiler and cook on the lowest heat for 5-10 minutes. Allow to cool and transfer to a dark, sealable glass bottle. Store the sunscreen at room temperature for up to a month or in the refrigerator for up to 3 months.
This recipe may not make very much, but remember that oils lose potency over time, so stick to small batches to avoid waste and guarantee freshness and potency.
2. Sun Protecting Clothing
It may seem odd to slap clothes on your dog on a hot day, but it may be the safest and easiest way to prevent sunburns. Just be aware of the temperature. You don’t want to put a sweater on a hot dog. Instead, stick to light and breathable dog apparel, like shirts or bandanas.
Cooling gear is a great option for both sun protection and temperature control. Even on long outings, you can rehydrate a cooling vest and keep the sun away at the same time. The Ruffwear Jet Stream Cooling Vest is one of our favourites to keep dogs cool.
3. Find Shade
You can still enjoy summer while avoiding too much direct sunlight. Move your activities to areas with a little more shade. Choose walking trails in forested areas or set up patio umbrellas in your yard to provide some reprieve from the sun.
If you are planning a long outdoor activity, like a hike or camping, make sure you scope out areas with shade, so you know where to go when your dog needs to get out of the sun.
4. Off-Peak Hours
Early morning and evening activities is an easy way to reduce the effects of the sun’s rays. Though it’s still plenty warm and light out, the sun is lower in the sky and not nearly as hot. This doesn’t completely eliminate the risk of sunburns, but it does reduce them significantly.
5. Limit Water Activities
It’s always refreshing to go for a cool dip on a hot day, and while it may seem like the best way to keep your dog cool, the sun reflects off the surface of the water, which could lead to sunburns. This doesn’t mean you can’t take your dog swimming; it just means that you should limit the amount of time your dog is in or on the water and provide shade whenever possible.
How to Treat a Dog Sunburn at Home
Now that you can identify a sunburn on your dog, it’s important to know how to treat them properly. Timely treatment can prevent a sunburn from worsening, and more importantly, can speed healing and prevent infection during recovery.
Many of the standard treatments for your dog’s superficial sunburns are going to sound familiar because they are very similar to how you would treat a sunburn in yourself. As soon as you notice your dog’s sunburn, there are four steps you should take to reduce discomfort and kickstart the healing process:
Get Out of the Sun
The first and most important step to treating a sunburn is to get your dog out of the sun. Further sun exposure will only worsen the sunburn. This means bringing them indoors, preferably somewhere cool with good airflow so they can lower their body temperature.
Shut the curtains, and set up some fans is possible. Keeping them cool will help to reduce the risk of overheating and help keep them comfortable while you continue treatment of their sunburnt skin.
Find out more ways to keep your dog cool in How to Cool Down a Dog: Beating the Summer Heat.
Cool the Affected Area
The very first step is to stop your dog’s skin from burning. Apply a cold compress to the area just like you would to any minor burn. This will help draw out heat from the sunburnt skin and stop the skin from burning more.
Make sure it’s cool, but don’t apply ice or ice pack directly to your dog’s skin. Wrap it in a towel or another material because this can cause further damage to the already compromised skin.
If your dog has a sunburn on a large part of their body, then a cool bathe or rinse will be more effective. During this time, your dog should be brought indoors and out of direct sunlight. Further exposure to the sun can cause more damage and slow the healing process.
Aloe Vera on Dog Sunburns
Once the area has been cooled to stop the burn, you should apply a topical treatment designed to help soothe the affected area and rehydrate the skin to prevent discomfort during healing. One product that is commonly used on human sunburns is aloe vera.
Fortunately, pure aloe vera is also safe to use on dogs, and it’s safe to ingest, so even if your dog licks at the aloe, it’s safe. Aloe works by creating a barrier to lock in your dog’s natural skin moisture, preventing the area from drying and the damaged skin from cracking or peeling too quickly.
Additionally, aloe has a natural cooling and soothing effect, which can reduce the initial discomfort of the burn. Just be aware of all of the ingredients in your aloe vera products. Not all human aloe vera sunburn care products are safe for pets, and some lotion ingredients are not designed for use on pets.
Vet's Best Hot Spot Spray is a pet-safe option for helping soothe the skin and aid in healing. This blend of tea tree oil, chamomile, and aloe vera acts as both a skin moisturizer and an antiseptic to support the healing process.
Prevent Infection with Coconut Oil
While your dog’s sunburn is healing, they are at risk of infection. Damaged skin can crack and peel, allowing bacteria to get in when your dog inevitably licks or scratches the irritated area. Proper wound and infection care and preventing over-drying the skin can make sure your dog heals quicker and easier.
Coconut oil is a great way to kill two birds with one stone, so to speak. Coconut oil acts as a moisturizing lotion to heal damaged skin and has antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties when used topically. Learn more about the Benefits of Coconut Oil for Dogs.
Other wound and infection treatments, like Thrive Silver Shield or Neosporin, further eliminate bacteria that could lead to infection. If you see signs of irritation or infection in the days after the sunburn, call your vet.
Dog Sunburn Healing Tips
Every dog sunburn could bring your dog closer to long-term damage, like scarring or even cancer. Preventing sunburns is important, and part of prevention is keeping your dog’s already damaged skin safe from the sun’s radiation. Here are a few tips to support your dog's healing after a sunburn:
- Your dog's sunburnt skin may peel as it heals. Never peel the skin, let it slough off naturally whenever possible.
- The new skin is especially sensitive, so you need to continue treating and protecting your dog’s skin after a burn. Applying topical treatments daily, like coconut oil, to healing skin will continue to reduce discomfort and keep skin moisturized.
- Though proper sun protection is recommended anytime your dog is spending time in the sun, it’s important to be extra cautious while an existing sunburn is still healing. Healing time will depend on the severity of the burn but can take days to weeks to fully heal.
- If possible, try to prevent your dog from scratching or licking at the sunburn. This can damage the skin and introduce bacteria that could lead to infection.
- When in doubt, call your vet. While a sunburn might not seem too bad at first, it can continue to worsen if not treated properly, so call your vet if you suspect your dog's sunburn is severe.
- Your dog's sunburnt skin may peel as it heals. Never peel the skin, let it slough off naturally whenever possible.
How do you keep your dog safe from the sun? Let us know your dog's sun protection routine in the comments below!