Yes, dogs can get sunburn, too. Like humans, their skin is not immune to the harsh effects of the sun’s UV rays. Ultraviolet radiation can also damage the cells of the skin, leading to the characteristic redness that we associate with sunburn. The area can also be very tender to the touch and it can be very uncomfortable for the dog. Your pet can get cranky and irritated that you will not be able to touch it, let alone carry it. The good news is that you can always widen your knowledge of this phenomenon so you’ll be better equipped to handle it on your pet dog.
What Happens in Sunburn?
Sunburn in dogs is almost the same as sunburn in humans. Our skins may be a bit different, but the physiology of sunburn development remains the same.
Sunburn develops because of an overexposure to UV radiation. What happens is that the UV rays inflict direct damage to the DNA of skin cells. Since DNA carries the information necessary for the production of daughter or new cells, the cell undergoes programmed cell death. It is a means to preserve the integrity of the skin. Instead of allowing a damaged DNA to produce defective daughter cells, the immune system will mount an inflammatory response to “kill” the skin cells with damaged DNA. They call this process apoptosis. With the death of these cells, new cells emerge to replace them.
Hence, sunburn is nothing more than an inflammatory response. Any inflammatory process possesses 5 cardinal signs: redness, swelling, warmth, pain, and loss of function of the affected part. You can see all of these signs in a dog with sunburn. Its skin will be reddish. If you try to touch it, it will have a blanching effect. The area where you pressed your finger will turn pale in color compared to its reddish surroundings. This is an indication of swelling. The skin will feel warm, too. There’s pain or tenderness when you touch the dog’s skin. And because of the pain, the dog will not want to move its affected body part.
Sunburn and Its Link to Skin Cancer in Dogs
Like sunburn in humans, sunburn in dogs can also be a major factor in the development of certain types of skin cancer. These can include melanoma and squamous cell carcinoma. In melanoma, the affected cells are the pigment-producing melanocytes. In squamous cell carcinoma, the cells that are often affected are those on superficial layers of the dog’s skin.
We mentioned that overexposure to UV rays can damage the DNA of the cells. It’s also true that the dog’s immune system will try to mount an inflammatory response to induce the death of the cell. This is to help prevent the generation of defective cells.
Unfortunately, some cells with damaged DNA do not undergo apoptosis. Since they now carry a defective gene, these cells will continue to produce cells that contain the damaged DNA. Over time, these cells will be very different from the original cell. When such time comes, the cell is known to have mutated. In other words, it is now a neoplastic cell. It is very different from the original cell. This is the start of cancer.
Dogs that are Most Susceptible to Sunburn
All dogs are at risk of sunburn. However, like humans, there are certain dogs that have a much higher risk for the development of sunburn than other types of dogs.
In general, dogs with light-colored fur like white tend to have a greater risk of sunburn than those with dark-colored coats. The understanding is that “white” or “light-colored” dogs are similar to human blondes. They tend to have fairer skin underneath. This “fair” or “light-colored” skin is due to lower levels of the pigment known as melanin. This pigment helps protect the skin against the harmful effects of the sun’s UV rays. That’s why fair-skinned people are more prone to sunburn than dark-skinned individuals. The same is true with dogs.
There are also dogs that have thin fur. They are also at an increased risk of sunburn. Hairless or near-hairless breeds like the Chinese Crested and the Xoloitzcuintli are also more susceptible to develop sunburn.
We mentioned above that all dogs are vulnerable to sunburn. Why is that?
There are certain parts of a dog’s body that do not have hair. Examples of these are the nose and the paw pads. There are also certain parts of its body that have thinner hair like the belly and the inner surface of the ears. These parts of the dog’s body are still susceptible to sunburn.
Recognizing the Early Signs or Symptoms of Dog Sunburn
The signs and symptoms of sunburn in dogs is almost the same as those in humans. The skin appears redder than usual. And if you try to touch the reddened area, the dog may flinch or let out a soft whimper. It’s a sign that this area is tender. The most common areas where redness may occur are those that have thinner or sparse hair.
You may also notice certain parts like the nose and paw pads to be dry to the touch. In some instances, you may see small cracks in these parts of the dog’s body. There may also be curling on ear tips.
The dog may also try to lick the “burnt” area of its skin in an effort to reduce the pain. Some dogs may scratch it, but this may only increase the amount of pain that they feel.
Managing Sunburn in Dogs
The skin of dogs do not get sunburnt as fast as the skin of humans. As such, if you see signs of sunburn on the dog, it often indicates serious tissue injury. A veterinarian can help make a more comprehensive evaluation of the sunburn in the dog. This will be the basis for a more appropriate treatment. However, if you think your dog doesn’t need veterinary care right away, here are some ways you can manage the sunburn in your pet.
- Cool Water
Spraying the dog’s sunburnt body with cold water often helps. Use a plant mister and spray cold water on your dog every 30 minutes. If your dog hates being sprayed, try soaking a piece of clean cloth in ice water. Apply this onto the dog’s sunburnt areas.
- Ice and Other Frozen Products
If you have a bag of frozen corn or peas, you can also use them as a cold compress. Some pet parents use an ice pack. Get some ice cubes and put them in a plastic bag. This can serve as an ice compress.
- Witch Hazel
Witch hazel is also effective in cooling inflamed skin. It works like alcohol, but without the characteristic sting. Moisten a piece of cotton ball with witch hazel and dab this onto affected areas at least three times a day. This will help soothe the burn.
- Oatmeal Soak
If your dog enjoys a day in the tub, an oatmeal soak should work. Get some raw oatmeal and fill an old but clean sock with it. Hang it under the bathtub faucet and let the bath water run through the oatmeal-filled sock. Let your dog stay in the tub for at least 30 minutes. This will soothe its sunburned skin as well as initiate the healing process.
- Aloe Vera
One can also apply aloe vera cream onto the sunburned area. This will moisturize the skin while allowing the burned tissues to heal a lot faster. If aloe vera cream is not available, you can get a few leaves of the aloe plant. Squeeze out the liquid and apply this on the affected body part.
- Vitamin E
Using Vitamin E can also help. This can speed up the rate of healing while also soothing the burn. Cut off the tip on these capsules so you can squeeze their liquid content. Apply this on the sunburned area at least once a day.
Preventing Sunburn in Dogs
Since sunburn is the result of overexposure to the sun’s UV rays, prevention should be easy – avoid getting your dog overexposed to UV rays.
- Stay in the Shade
Summer means plenty of activities in the great outdoors. Unfortunately, this also exposes your pet to the ill effects of UV radiation. Hence, it is best to stay in the shade. You can bring a large beach umbrella or stay under the shade of a tree.
- Watch the Time of Day
The sun’s UV rays are at their peak intensity from 9 in the morning until about 3 in the afternoon. Hence, it is best to stay indoors or in shaded areas during these times of the day.
- Use Pet-friendly Sunscreen Products
There are pet care products that serve as sunscreens. You can apply these products on the dog’s ear tips, tummy, groin, and nasal bridge. You can also apply sunscreen to other areas that are at higher risk of UV exposure. When choosing a sunscreen for your pet, make sure to get one with an SPF rating of at least 15.
Dogs can get sunburnt just like humans. Preventing sunburn entails avoiding overexposure to the sun’s UV rays.