Cape Cod Times

Life's a beach ... but too much sun can harm pets (and their humans!)

June 1, 2006
By JOHANNA CROSBY - STAFF WRITER

The weather's finally turning warmer and you're chomping at the leash to romp outdoors with your pet.

Although you probably protect yourself from the summer sun - you do, right? - you may not think it's a hazard for your furry friend.

Think again.

The fact is - doggone it - some cats and dogs can get sunburn, too.

Life's a Beach

“People think it's good for their pets to be outside,” says Nancy Peterson, issues specialist with the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington, D.C. But they don't realize the dangers of the sun, she says. Just like fair-skinned people, white and light-colored dogs and cats are susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer, Peterson cautions.

Short-haired breeds and white-haired dogs such as Maltese, huskies and poodles are more sensitive to the sun, notes Dr. Tad Hurvitz of A House Call Vet in Brewster.

Although cats and dogs can get sunburn, “it's somewhat rare,” says Dr. Thomas Burns of Veterinary Associates of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth. The reason is that their fur coat naturally protects them from the penetrating and damaging rays of the sun. Dogs with thick or long coats have an added sun shield, Burns says.

Dogs typically don't get sunburn, particularly breeds with black noses, says Dr. David Romeiser of Shawme Animal Hospital in Sandwich. In 24 years of practice, he's never seen an animal with a classic first- to third-degree sunburn like a human being. Yet, like a bald man, a dog with very little or thin hair, like a white boxer, can be prone to sunburn and skin cancer, Romeiser says.

Sunburn is a more common problem for dogs and cats that live in sunny climes like Florida, California and Hawaii than on Cape Cod, says Dr. Gordon Olmsted of West Falmouth Veterinary Clinic.

White cats are more vulnerable to solar dermatitis, which, if not treated, can lead to squamous cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer, Olmsted says. He's seen a few cases of skin cancer on cats appearing on their ears and the tips of their noses.

But pets don't have to be outdoors to get sunburn. Indoor cats that like to sit by a window can get sunburn on their ears and face, Hurvitz says.

Like humans, animals need a certain amount of sunlight for good health. Yet too much ultraviolet radiation can irritate their skin and cause sunburn. Signs of damage from the sun include redness, hair loss, crusting, blistering, ulcerations and scarring. Sunburn appears on the nose, ears, belly and inside of the legs.

Generally, sunburn will go away, Hurvitz says. But if it's severe, your pet needs to see the vet.

There's plenty you can do to protect Fido and Trixie from getting sunburn this season. The veterinarians offer the following tips:

  • Limit your pet's exposure to the sun.
  • Keep pets indoors during the sun's peak hours, even on overcast days.
  • Make sure a pet that spends time outdoors has access to shade.
  • Don't clip a pet's coat shorter than an inch, even for long-haired dogs getting a ''summer cut.''
  • Apply sunscreen on exposed areas: the tip of the nose and the ears.

It's not recommended to use sunscreens intended for humans, Peterson says, because animals tend to lick it off. These products contain ingredients that can be toxic to a dog or cat if ingested. Sunscreen made specifically for animals is available. Check with your local pet store or visit online pet-supply vendors.

Consider some sort of covering for your pet, even a body suit, visor or sunglasses ''if you pet will tolerate it,'' Peterson says.

With beach time upon us, keep in mind that such prolonged sun exposure can cause pets to burn. The solution: Leave them at home, where they're most cool and comfortable, during the hottest hours of the day.

Pets: What your humans need to do to protect THEMSELVES from too much sun.

  • Avoid exposure altogether from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
  • Use sunscreen with a sun protective factor (SPF) of 15 or higher.
  • Reapply sunscreen every one to one-and-a-half hours.
  • Wear protective clothing such as wide-brimmed hats and long-sleeved shirts to block rays.
  • Protect young children from the sun.
  • Factor in medication when judging how much sun is too much. Ask the doctor or pharmacist if medication lowers tolerance for sun.
  • Avoid sun lamps and tanning booths; use a cosmetic self-tanner instead.

Source: City of Hope Cancer Center, www.coh.org

This article © Copyright 2006 Cape Cod Times