Yes, pets can get sunburn. Sunburn, is caused by damage to skin cells by ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UV radiation is part of the electromagnetic (light) spectrum that reaches the earth from the sun. It has wavelengths shorter than visible sunlight, making it invisible to the naked eye. Exposure to UV radiation can even occur on overcast days. UV radiation causes changes in skin cells that produce sunburns as well as suntans.
The pigment-producing cells of the skin are called melanocytes and their activity is the major determinant of hair and skin color. Many animals already have a lot of melanocytes in their cells and their presence gives us the large variety of colors that we see in their skin and their fur. Our furry companions have one more bit of protection for their skin – fur! An animalâ€™s fur is just like the protection we have when we wear clothes to cover our skin from the sunlight.
But animals that have very pink skin and/or white fur have a relative lack of melanocytes. This may occur in some areas of their bodies, or all over their bodies and in their eyes as with albino animals. Dogs, cats or other animals that have very pink skin and little to no fur to cover it are at risk to get sunburn or possibly skin cancer later in life. Animals that have had fur shaved for comfort or because of a medical need may be at higher risk for sunburns.
If your pet has very red skin that looks sunburned, the first thing you should do is get them out of the sun. If the skin is red and not swollen or painful, applying cool (not cold) water may be helpful. Human preparations that contain Aloe Vera may also be used if the burn is very mild. Avoiding additional sun exposure will also be important. More severe sunburns and especially those with any changes to the skin (like blisters) should be seen by your veterinarian as quickly as possible.
Prevention is one of the best ways to avoid this situation from happening. Humans and sensitive animals should avoid or minimize direct sun contact during the peak hours for UV radiation, typically 10 am to 4 pm. Do remember that UV light is different that the visual light of sunrays, so overcast days may still lead to too much exposure. For animals that have to be out during those times, sunscreen may be another option. There are a number of products that have been designed for animals, but if you cannot find one, using a product designed for infants may be an alternative. There are some chemicals in adult sunscreen products that may cause some toxicity or be harmful if ingested by our pets: Avoid use of products that contain zinc or the chemical Octyl Salicylate. Another concern is grooming habits: If the animal licks off the product, the protection is lost. Reapplication of a product should be done on an as needed basis. Cats or other pets that frequently sun bathe in the house are likely benefiting from the UV ray protection that is in most windows. If you have questions about your windows, check with the manufacturer.
In humans and other animals, there is concern that the long term affects of too much sun may include skin cancer. Not having a sunburn does not mean that there arenâ€™t chronic, malignant changes occurring to the skin on a microscopic level. If you have a dog, cat or other pet that has very pale skin and not a whole lot of fur protecting their skin, keep their exposure to direct sun at a minimum and consider using sunscreen. If you observe abnormal lesions, especially dark colored ones, discuss removing and testing them for cancer with your veterinarian.
Dr. Carla Christman
Healthy Pet Veterinary Clinic
1440 E. Washington Ave.
Madison, WI 53703