What is Sunburn?
In cases of mild sunburn redness, inflammation and flaking is often seen that can be managed with cool compresses. For more severe cases, urgent veterinary attention may be needed to prevent deterioration. Sunburn can cause acute pain and lead to long-term health risks, making sunburn prevention an essential aspect in pet care.
Sunburn in dogs is a common problem for pets regularly exposed to the sun. Like humans, dogs are sensitive to the ultraviolet rays of the sun, particularly during intense periods throughout the heat of the day. Dogs that are particularly susceptible to suffering from sunburn are those with short or thin fur that allow easy UV penetration to skin, canines with low melanin levels in the skin, and hairless breeds.
Symptoms of Sunburn in Dogs
Symptoms of sunburn are usually acute in nature, developing from 1 hour following sun exposure and peaking within 3 days. The most common symptom is reddened skin that may be painful. In severe cases inflammation and blistering may be seen. The areas most commonly affected are the ears, nose, skin around the eyes and the back of the pet. Other symptoms in very severe cases may include weakness, fainting and shock due to heat exhaustion.
- Reddened areas of skin
- Vocalization of pain in movement and when touched
Causes of Sunburn in Dogs
Sunburn is caused in dogs by the acute overexposure to ultraviolet light from the sun. Factors that affect the degree of burning varies depending on the amount of pigmentation in the skin, the animal’s ability to produce melanin, and the levels of ultraviolet light the pet is exposed to. In animals that suffer from sunburn the risk of developing cancerous conditions later in life is increased, with frequent sunburns being linked to skin cancers.
Canine skin tumors are the cause of approximately 30% of total tumors seen in primary veterinary practise, the two most common cancers being basal cell carcinoma and squamous cell carcinoma. These skin masses are known to be caused by exposure to sunlight, and if malignant can spread to local lymph nodes. To prevent metastatic disease surgical excision, and in some cases, radiotherapy treatment is necessary. Dogs that are sensitive to sunburn include:
- Dogo Argentino
- White Bulldog
- White Boxer
- Hairless breeds such as Chinese Crested
- Animals that suffer from illnesses or genetic defects that cause alopecia or coat thinning such as flea infestation or fungal infection
- Chronic skin conditions such as atopic dermatitis
- Surgery that leaves areas of skin exposed due surgical clipping allows for sunburn if not protected
- Pets with areas of scar tissue
- Dogs that suffer from auto-immune diseases should have their sun exposure carefully monitored due to the risk of worsening existing conditions
Diagnosis of Sunburn in Dogs
Your veterinarian will examine your dog’s skin and discuss his clinical history with you to determine the cause of burning. Your pet’s presentation and recent behavior such as time spent in the sun, coat type, and skin pigmentation will often be enough for a clinical diagnosis to be made. In severe cases, chemical burns may also be suspected. The pattern of burns will allow your veterinarian to differentiate; chemical burns often follow a splatter pattern whilst sunburns may present evenly across your pet.
Treatment of Sunburn in Dogs
If your dog has suffered severe burns and heat exhaustion, supportive therapy through intravenous fluids may be necessary to stabilize your pet and prevent or correct dehydration. Your veterinarian may apply cold compresses to your pet’s skin to reduce pain and to cool the skin and limit further damage.
In some cases, your canine may need a cortisone ointment to reduce inflammation. To prevent infection your veterinarian may prescribe a topical antibacterial and antifungal agent such as silver sulfadiazine. If secondary infection occurs, antibiotic therapy may be necessary.
Recovery of Sunburn in Dogs
Your pet’s prognosis following sunburn is good, however he may have an increased risk of developing skin conditions in later life. To prevent further sun damage from occurring, the following steps can be taken:
- Apply SPF 30, water resistant, pet safe sunscreen to your pet’s skin, focusing on areas of increased exposure such as places of hair loss or scarring, the pinna, nose, and stomach for canines that enjoy sunbathing on their back
- A zinc based sunscreen may also be considered
- Avoidance of the sun at it’s strongest is the most effective solution, if possible keep your pet inside during midday and ensure your pet’s environment has plenty of shade
- If sun exposure is unavoidable, provide your pet with sun protection in the form of a shirt, hat, or coat, particularly if outdoor activity is taking place over a long period of time