Yes, cats and dogs can get sunburned. White or light-colored animals have a greater risk of sun damage than their dark-furrier counterparts but a dog or cat with a close cut or thinning hair is just as likely to burn no matter what color it is.
Most people don’t realize that dogs with short legs are more susceptible to sunburn than other dogs. Why? Because their bellies are closer to the ground, therefore it’s easier for the tummy area to get sunburn from the sunlight and heat being reflected off the ground.
Collies and other dog breeds, such as Shetland Sheepdogs, who have no pigment on their nose, can develop a condition called “Collie Nose,” or “nasal solar dermatitis.” This is actually caused by a hypersensitivity to the sun.
Pets susceptible to sunburn should be kept out of direct summer sun, especially in the middle of the day when the sun is particularly strong.
In dogs, sunburn can appear as red skin or even hair loss. “Most dogs have pigmented skin. White dogs have pink skin, but most of it is protected from the sun by fur. Skin cancer from excess exposure to the sun most often occurs in two places: the noses of white dogs or dogs with pink noses or white markings on the top of the muzzle, and on the ears.
There are some illnesses and genetic defects that will contribute to a thin coat and make a dog more sensitive to sunburn. Illnesses such as parasitic infections, congenital hairlessness and chronic skin conditions will all affect a dog’s coat, and possibly result in a thinner coat or hair loss.
Dogs exposed to the sun and have these conditions must be protected. It is wise to watch, cover and protect any areas that have had a sudden hair loss, like scar tissue from a recent surgery or injury.
Cats with white ears are especially prone to develop sunburn on the tips and edges of the ears. Like humans, light-colored cats are more at risk for sunburn. Veterinarians call this “Feline Solar Dermatitis.” Areas at risk on your light-colored cat include ear tips, eyelids, nose, and the lips. These are areas with little hair to protect them, and no melanin — the pigment present in skin and hair.
Buff-colored cats are at risk for sunburn, too (just like white or light cats). Is your cat an indoor only cat who likes to sunbathe near a window? Well beware, UV light does come through window glass, and, yes, it is possible for a cat to burn through a window.
Sunburn in cats may appear first as an area of redness. It may be painful. If the same area is repeatedly exposed to sunburn, the burn may grow worse (progressing up to a third degree burn), and may even eventually manifest as squamous cell carcinoma.
Of course, sunburn doesn’t automatically lead to skin cancer, but it can provide conditions for cancer to eventually occur, especially if the cat repeatedly burns in the same body area, and/or irritates it by scratching.
Both cats and dogs can benefit from PET SAFE sunscreen.
Sunscreens that contain the following ingredients should not be used on dogs: benzophenone-3; triethanolamine; methyl parabene; zinc oxide; DMDM hydantoin; imidurea; and PABA.
Many common ingredients in human sunscreen are toxic to cats, including those with zinc oxide. octyl xalicylate, homosalate and ethylhexyl salicylate. According to the Found Animals Foundation, titanium oxide is one ingredient that can be used on the tip of the ears — but not where the cat can reach while grooming, as ingesting this ingredient can be toxic.
Because sunscreens aren’t tested on pets by the FDA, it can be tricky to find the right brand. That’s why it’s critical to reach out to your veterinarian to find the best product for your cat. In some cases, sunscreens for sensitive skin and sunscreens for infants can be safe to use on cats, so be sure to go over these options with your veterinarian.