Pets & Sunburn: What You Need to Know About Sunburn Pain and Solar Dermatitis

Long sunny days can bring misery for people—and their pets. You can keep them safe with these tips. Yes, pet sunburn is real, and can not only painful but sometimes lead to skin cancer.

I’m very careful about my own sun protection, as I get sunburn very quickly. Wearing a hat, sunglasses, long sleeves and sunscreen works well during gardening—but does nothing to prevent back injuries (that’s a topic for another column!).

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Hairless or thinly furred pets like this guinea pig and Frenchie-Chinese Crested mix dog, are at highest risk and need protection from the sun.

How Common Is Pet Sunburn?

Dogs and cats are very well protected against the sun by their fur and don’t routinely suffer from sunburn. When they do, it’s the hairless or thinly-furred areas of the body that are most at risk, like the ear tips, bridge of the nose, and the tummy. So if your white dog loves to sleep on his back in a sun-puddle on the carpet, think about taking care.

Most pets know to stay out of severe heat like what we experience here in North Texas. Heatstroke more typically occurs when they have no way to avoid the sun. Those who live in higher altitudes, such as the mountains of Colorado, suffer sunburn more frequently. The cooler air partnered with higher elevations predispose people–and sun-bathing pets–to sunburn.

White pets are at highest risk. Nope, pets may not care if tan turns fair skin to leather-like textures, but sunburn risk goes beyond changes to their appearance.

cat sunburn

White cats are also at high risk, because they love to sunbathe.

Solar Dermatitis

Sunburn isn’t a medical emergency, but it can be painful. Prolonged or repeated exposure can cause solar dermatitis, a skin condition caused by damage from the sun. The skin turns red, can blister, become crusty, and peel.

In severe cases, the tips of the ears can dry out, lose hair, and the edges curl. When that happens, the pet will need medical attention. Sometimes a tumor (squamous cell carcinoma) develops at the site.

If your cat or dog develops thickened or scabby skin that doesn’t resolve quickly, please seek medical attention as soon as possible. Sun-induced tumors removed early tend to have an excellent prognosis, although you’ll want to watch and protect your pet from excessive sun exposure in the future.

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Dogs sleeping on their backs in the sun risk a painful tummy.

Relieving Sunburn Pain

First aid is usually all that is needed to take care of minor sunburn pain. An easy, effective treatment is a cold water spray from a plant mister every half hour or so. Cats hate being sprayed, so soak clean cloths with ice water and apply as cold compresses to the affected area.

Witch hazel is available at supermarkets or pharmacies and helps cool inflamed skin by evaporation, but doesn’t sting like alcohol. Dab some on with a cotton ball three or four times a day to soothe the burn.

Over-the-counter sprays like Solarcaine and Lanacane contain local anesthetics that temporarily numb the pain of sunburn. You can use these on dogs for effective pain relief. Cats, though, tend to lick off the spray and some of these products won’t be good for them if swallowed. Ice is a safe and quick alternative—hold an ice cube against the burned area to numb the pain.

Oatmeal soaks are extremely soothing and healing for damaged skin. You can use Aveeno mixed in cool water, or fill a cotton sock with raw oatmeal, and run the bathwater through it as you fill the tub. This works better for dogs than cats, especially pets with burned bellies—let the dog sit and soak as long as he’s willing.

Moisturizing Damaged Skin

Sunburn dries out the skin. Aloe vera creams not only moisturize but also help heal burns faster. You can use the gel directly from the plant by breaking off a leaf and squeezing out the liquid. Or use a commercial product that contains aloe. Apply several times a day to the sore spots.

Vitamin E not only helps speed the healing, and soothes the burn, but also works great to prevent scars from forming. Squeeze the oil from a vitamin E capsule and spread on the pet’s nose or ear tips once or twice a day. You’ll need several capsules to apply to a belly burn. Vitamin E isn’t a problem if the pet decides to lick it off—it’s actually good for the pet on the inside, too.

A Tee-shirt helps enormously to protect against the sun. If your dog enjoys and tolerates a hat or “Doggles” sunglasses for dogs, go for it!

Preventing Pet Sunburn

The most dangerous times of day for sunburn are 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. so keep susceptible pets indoors during these hours. Draw the shades so window-worshipping cats aren’t exposed. When sun exposure can’t be avoided, especially for dogs that love to sunbathe on their backs, fit them with a tee-shirt that covers up tender skin.

You can also use sunscreens on the ear tips, bridge of the nose, tummy, or other places affected by sun exposure to protect your pet. Choose a product with an SPF (sun protection factor) of 15 or higher. Avoid human products containing zinc oxide or PABA—pet products are best. There are a number of “dog” products available on Amazon, but be sure they’re safe for cats, too.

So what about your cats and dogs? Sun worshipers? Ever have problems with sun irritation? How do you keep them safe?


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Pets & Sunburn: What You Need to Know About Sunburn Pain and Solar Dermatitis — 3 Comments

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