Q: I am a dog walker for over 10 years now and sunscreen is becoming a more common concern for clients. I was hoping you could address this topic.
A: We all know that summer officially starts this year on June 21. However, here in the Lowcountry, my family (Perry Jameson) started acting like it was summer last weekend. The ocean water was warm enough for us to swim and the air temperature was hot enough for us to want to get into the water.
We lathered on sunscreen, set up an umbrella on the beach to provide shade and all wore our long-sleeve rash guards and wide-brimmed hats for maximum UVF protection.
Our dog Flipper likes to be where we are, so when outside at home, he is right there, too. He also, for some reason, likes to sunbathe. In the middle of the hottest days of summer, he will find a sunny spot in our yard to nap.
Flipper would be the equivalent of a fair-haired human as he is a short-haired hound mix. His hair is white, and in certain areas, such as his ears and lower abdomen, are not even covered at all.
All pets have the potential to have issues from sun exposure but especially those with thin white hair, fair skin and hairless areas like Flipper. Also, if you shave your pet's coat, this removes their natural sun block. Diseases that result in hair loss will, of course, result in the same issue.
In pets, sunburn can appear as red skin or hair loss. The most common sites for sunburn in cats and dogs are the bridge of the nose, ear tips, skin surrounding the lips, groin, inside legs, abdomen and any other area where skin pigmentation is low.
Chronic, prolonged sun exposure may result in solar dermatitis, an inflammatory skin disease. Early on, the lesions are itchy, red and have fine scaling that progresses to peeling and crusting. With long-term sun exposure, thick, scaly to crusty lesions will develop that are slow to heal. It is believed that these chronic lesions may predispose to the development of skin cancers.
Sun-induced damage of cats is thought to cause squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) of the skin. Cutaneous SCC usually appears as a solitary, proliferative, ulcerated, red, crusted or scaly, plaque-like lesion. It most often arises in sparsely haired, lightly pigmented areas of skin, such as ear tips and nose. These tumors do not commonly spread, but as with any cancer, it can move to lymph nodes and lungs. The treatment of choice is surgical removal, which can be curative if the disease has not spread.
Cutaneous hemangioma (HA) and hemangiosarcoma (HAS) are suspected to result from sun exposure in dogs. These tumors appear as one or more red to purple skin nodules or masses located in areas of sparsely haired, lightly pigmented skin such as the ventral abdomen, prepuce, scrotum and back legs. Lesions are usually small and nonpainful.
Fortunately, the prognosis after surgical removal is excellent for HA and good for HSA that have not spread deeper than the skin. However, recurrence can be quite high with sun-induced tumors since surrounding exposed skin often undergoes changes that predisposes them to new tumors. A study of dogs following surgical removal found 77 percent of dogs with dermal HSA developed new HSAs in skin of the same area.
The best way to prevent these problems from occurring and treat solar dermatitis once present is to limit exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. Restrict sun exposure by keeping your dog and cat indoors during the day, especially between 9 a.m. and 3 p.m., which is the time of the most intense UV radiation. Reflected sunlight from sand, water and concrete also must be avoided.
However, there are times when sun exposure just cannot be avoided. The next best and safest option is clothing to block the sun like the long sleeve rash guards we wear. Some dogs will allow you to put on a T-shirt, but this does not cover all the affected areas. There are commercial sun suits designed for dogs made of sun-blocking fabric that do a better job.
For the face and ears and when a sun suit is not an option, frequent (at least twice daily and more frequently if swimming) topical application of waterproof sunscreen is recommended. The safest route is to use sunscreens made specifically for pets without ingredients that are dangerous if ingested.
However, when not available, you can often use products labeled as safe for babies. It should have an SPF of 30 or higher and protect from both UVA and UVB radiation. Ideally, apply about 15 minutes prior to sun exposure.
Avoid sunscreens that contain zinc as these are toxic to dogs and even more dangerous for cats. Many human sunscreens also contain salicylates that can be toxic and should be avoided as well. Octisalate would be an example, so if you see this or something similar, do not use.
We have been asked if tattoos protect against UV radiation from the sun. Tattooing is ineffective, as the tattoo ink is deposited in the deeper layers, which does not protect the outer epidermis.
Sun exposure is unavoidable if you want to enjoy our beautiful Lowcountry, but remember to be smart about exposure not only for yourself but your pet as well.