People and animals are more alike than we realize. Walk along the beach at Moonlight and you’ll see a bunch of Encinitians soaking in the sun. Walk into my backyard and you’ll see my dogs laying out flat enjoying the warming rays. Lucky dogs, lucky people, to live in such a warm and sunny part of the world. To say nothing of the sun-seeking kitties!
Well, not to scare you, but we know that if you sunbathe without any protection, you can be at huge risk for skin damage. Did you know the same is true for pets? In fact, some skin cancers in dogs and cats are the direct result of too much sun exposure. The sun, necessary as it is for all life on Earth (except for your occasional benthic hydrothermal-vent-living-organisms), is in fact a massive nuclear reactor that sprays all kinds of high-powered radiation into the solar system. When some of this radiation hits a fleshy little Earth dweller like a chihuahua on his hairless little belly, invisible rays literally start cooking his skin cells. That’s that nice, toasty feeling. Keep him in the sun long enough, the skin will burn, and chronic exposure can cause serious damage and lead to skin cancer.
I know what you’re thinking, “Well my dog is outside all day and has never had a problem!”. That’s because not all animals are high risk! Pets with light skin, white fur, or no hair at all are most sensitive to sunburn. If you put a Dalmatian in sun every day, she will only get burns on the white parts. But even if you’ve never seen a major problem, it doesn’t mean that there’s no damage, sometimes sunburns can just look like small crusted rashes. The nose, the belly, and the tips of the ears are common problem areas.
So what can you do about it if you live on the top of Mt. Sunshine and you have a herd of naked sphynx cats who sleep outside all day? The number one thing is to try and avoid direct sunlight exposure during the most intense parts of the day (between 9am and 4pm), and remember that even on cloudy days, UV radiation can still get through and cause damage. Some people put up shades, some people put t-shirts on their pets, and some people use sunscreen.
Which leads me finally to which sunscreens are safe and best for pets? There are a million different products out there, and not a lot of clear product labeling, which makes things confusing. Here’s your takeaway message: if it’s safe for babies, if should be safe for dogs and cats. Why are baby safe products okay for pets? Basically because they aren’t absorbed into the bloodstream and they’re safe if ingested. Here’s what you do, grab the bottle/can/tub of sunscreen that you want to use, ignore all the logos and fancy stuff on the front, and turn it around. Look at the “active ingredient” list, and you really only want two things there. Their names are “titanium dioxide” and “zinc dioxide”. These are considered “physical sunscreens” (v. chemical sunscreens) and work by creating a protective barrier on the skin that literally blocks harmful radiation.
You also want to make sure that it’s SPF 30 or higher. And finally, you want to make sure that it doesn’t have an ingestion warning, so even if the pet licks the sunscreen, they won’t get sick. Make sure to reapply frequently. And if you have any questions, find some shade and just call us!
-Dr. Greg Bishop