Most dog breeds are well protected from the vast majority of issues with sunburns due to their heavy coats. However, changing the coat through clipping, trimming and even breeding for specific coat types can make some dogs more likely to develop sunburn than others.
Any long haired or double coated dog that is significantly clipped, especially in the very short puppy or sport type clips, may be at risk for sunburn. This is particularly true if the dog is light or pink skinned as this type of skin burns much more significantly than black skin or very dark skin colorations. Typically dogs with yellow, apricot, white, cream or wheaten colors of hair actually have white skin underneath. Dogs with brown, tan, black and patterned coats will typically have darker colored skin or mottled skin. The period of time immediately after the clip is the most problematic so you may wish to consider clipping in the early spring while the weather is still cool and the sunlight is much less intense. The dog's skin will naturally become less sensitive to the more intense rays of the sun later on, although a dog does not tan like a person. The coat also has a chance to grow out a bit and provide more natural protection.
Hairless breeds of dogs are very sensitive to sun exposure and owners need to apply sunscreen to the dogs even when they are only exposed briefly to the more intense summer sunshine. Ideally the hairless varieties such as the Chinese Crested, American Hairless Terrier or the less common Mexican Hairless or Xoloitzcuintli, need to be kept out of direct sunlight as much as possible to avoid sunburn and skin damage.
Other breeds such as any white, short haired breeds or breeds with long hair that parts down the middle are often very prone to sunburn on the exposed skin areas. Often the pink skin around the nose, over the eyes and even the ears are commonly the major sight of most types of sunburn. Dogs with thin hair due to coat problems or health issues are highly at risk for sunburn all over the top parts of their body. Of course any dog that likes to lounge on his or her back in the sun will be prone to burning on the delicate skin of their belly area.
Symptoms And Signs Of Sunburn
Not surprisingly the signs and symptoms of sunburn in dogs is very similar to that found in people. Since there are different degrees of burns it is important to act quickly if you see any signs of sunburn on your dog. Generally the first sign is obvious redness of the skin, although this symptom means that a burn has already occurred.
As the burn intensifies the skin will begin to swell and blister and will also become itchy for the dog. If the burn is only within the top layer of the skin it is considered a first degree burn. Once the burn involves more than the top layer of skin it becomes more dangerous and potentially more likely to cause other serious skin and sun related concerns.
Second and third degree burns are deeper into the skin and in some instances may even involve the tissue directly under the skin. These burns often don't blister but the skin actually sloughs off, leaving open lesions. The hair follicles are typically damaged in this type of burn and the hair will eventually fall off as well, leaving the area more exposed to further burns.
Often in these significant burns the skin is initially red in color but then turns quickly to a dried, brownish looking color surrounding a cream or white center. Often the brown or leather looking skin is actually smooth to the touch and very dry or brittle in texture.
Treating the burn at the first degree burn stage is important as the more intense the burn becomes the greater the risk of skin cancer and permanent scaring and hair loss. Treat first degree burns by cooling the skin with clean, cool but not ice cold water. Dry the area and apply a sunburn cream or aloe vera gel, either will work to reduce inflammation and promote healing. Keep the dog out of the sun until the burn is completely healed, which will typically be several days to a couple of weeks. If the area becomes infected or the burn area expands, get to the vet immediately. If this happens the vet may shave the area to increase air circulation and help to keep the burn clean and easy to monitor and treat. First degree burns do not typically result in permanent hair loss, which will allow the hair to still provide some protection. Keep in mind that once the dog burns once it is more likely to burn again throughout its life.
Second and third degree burns are much more serious and need to be very carefully monitored. Dogs with significant burning over larger portions of the body may need to be kept at the vets and supplemented with IV hydration and anti-inflammatory medications. Pain management will be essential, as will the prevention of any secondary bacterial infections in the open areas of the skin. If you suspect a more than superficial sunburn it is essential to get your dog to a vet as soon as possible for immediate evaluation and treatment. In extreme cases of sunburn skin grafts may need to be considered when the exposed and burned area is too significant to heal on its own.
There are several options for owners to help prevent sunburns on their dogs. The first is to avoid long periods of time in direct sunlight for your pet. Provide a shady, cool and covered area for the dog to get out of the sun. Dog t-shirts and cover ups for the beach are a great idea but remember that the delicate skin of the face and ears is still highly exposed. Spray on pet sunscreen is available that really works well. Follow the directions for application and re-apply after the dog has been in the water.
Finally, don't count on your dog to know when he or she is getting sunburned, it is essential to monitor and control how much direct sunlight your dog is exposed to if it is a breed that has problems with sunburns.