Does Your Dog Need Sunscreen?

If you've never protected your pup's skin from the sun, it's time to start. A little SPF can go a long way toward keeping your dog healthy.

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When you’re heading out for a day at the beach or on the trail with your family, sunscreen is a must. You diligently apply it to every bit of your exposed skin, and if you have kids, you slather it on them as well. But what about your fur baby? Believe it or not, your dog needs sunscreen, too. However, even the most conscientious pet parents may not realize that and understand the effects that the sun can have on an animal’s skin. Here’s what you need to know to protect your pup and prevent the dangerous and long-lasting consequences of sun exposure.

Why dogs need sunscreen

The sun’s UV rays can be harmful—for people and pets. “Chronic sun exposure can lead to skin cancers in dogs, just like it can in people,” explains Andrea Peda, DVM, assistant professor at the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. “Common solar-induced skin cancers include squamous cell carcinoma, melanoma, hemangioma, and hemangiosarcoma.” These are the 12 warning signs of cancer in dogs that every owner should know.

Which dogs are at a greater risk

You may look at your German Shepard, see its beautiful coat, and wonder if this dog-sunscreen mandate applies to you. It does. In fact, this applies to all dogs. Areas with a thin hair coat that bear the brunt of the sun’s rays, like the ears and nose, should be protected from UV exposure.

Dogs with white coats and those who are predisposed to skin issues also benefit from the liberal use of SPF. “The application of sunscreen is most often recommended in white dogs that enjoy sunbathing and have already experienced some level of sun damage (solar dermatitis), usually along the belly,” says Sarah O’Neill, VMD, DACVD, of Nashville Vet Dermatology. “In other cases, sunscreen application is recommended as a preventive measure in those diagnosed with certain immune-mediated skin diseases, primarily of the face.” Keep your dog healthy–here’s what to do if your pup won’t eat.

When you should slather on the SPF

So, do you need to apply dog sunscreen to your dog before each and every walk? It depends on your dog’s breed and specific situation, but in most cases, no. The majority of dogs can handle a quick romp outside without sun protection, but dogs with thin coats and hairless dogs really do need the extra protection every time.

Dr. Peda suggests watching the clock and timing walks appropriately. “The best way to avoid sunburn in pets is to avoid the sun between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Keep your pet inside during these times,” she says. “If you cannot keep your pets inside during these hours, then it is best to apply sunscreen to areas of skin that are exposed and at risk for burning.” For dogs with normal coats, that means ears and noses. Don’t miss these other shockingly common outdoor dangers for your dog.

The best sun protection for your pup

As much as we often think they are, dogs are not human. So can your dog use sunscreen made for humans? Surprisingly, yes. “Most human sunscreen is safe for dogs, but there are a few ingredients you should watch out for,” explains Dr. Peda. “Ensure that you do not use a sunscreen that could be dangerous or toxic if ingested by the animal. This would include any sunscreens containing octyl salicylate and zinc. Sunblock products that contain zinc must be used very cautiously in dogs and only in areas inaccessible to the dog’s tongue, as zinc toxicity can occur if the dog licks the product. The best choice would be a sunscreen that is safe for children and babies that is waterproof and SPF 30 or greater.”

There are also dog-specific sunscreens available, but do your due diligence before investing in one. “It is important that you seek advice and recommendations from your veterinarian when choosing a product for your pet,” says Dr. Peda. “And if you intend to use these products on a cat, you must ensure that the label specifically states that it is safe for use in a cat because they are more likely to be sensitive and have toxic side effects to certain chemicals.” Don’t miss these 12 other dangerous mistakes cat owners should never make.

Alternatives to sunscreen

Hairless, thin-coated, or white dogs should always wear dog sunscreen, as should dogs with a history of skin disease. But for lower-risk dogs, you can pick up a sun shirt designed just for canines that has built-in UPF protection. Your other option: Take longer walks with your dog when those UV rays aren’t as strong, early in the morning or in the late afternoon or evening. That’s a sun-smart idea for you, too. And, of course, if you have any questions or you’re unsure about your dog’s sun sensitivity, consult your veterinarian. Here are 9 other trusted tips to help your pet live longer.

Kristi Pahr
Kristi is a freelance writer out of South Carolina, USA. She was a graduate veterinary technician with 10+ years in veterinary medicine before deciding to stay home and raise her children. Since becoming a freelancer, she's been published at several national outlets, including but not limited to Paste Magazine, Bustle, and Romper. She specializes in health and wellness, parenting, mental health, and animal care.