Sunburn, Skin Cancer and Pets- The risks of the sun to your pet

By Dr. Francesca Matthews 


We have all heard it over and over again - "slip, slop, slap" when it comes to us humans and our families, but it is important to also be aware that our pets face similar risks from the sun. October to March are the highest risk months.


The risk applies to all pets that spend any time in the sun. The risk is significantly greater to those pets that have areas of unpigmented (white or pink) skin that can be seen through their fur, especially those with pale hair colour.

Not only can our pets suffer the consequences of sun burn but damage to the skin from the sun's UV rays can lead to skin cancers and other skin conditions.



What is the incidence of skin cancer in pets?


From published data, obtained at the recent New Zealand Veterinary Association conference, 3.6 – 6.9% of skin lesions and lumps presented to vets in dogs are a type of skin cancer called Squamous Cell Carcinoma, and 4.5 – 17.4% of skin lesions in cats are also squamous cell carcinomas. This cancer type is associated with exposure to the sun.


Melanomas also occur in dogs at a rate of 5 - 6.8%. There is currently no clear association at this time of the presence of these with sun exposure, however given the association in humans, it would seem pertinent to help your pet avoid over-exposure to the sun. Especially given how common the other type of skin cancer that is associated with the sun is.



As well as these well known skin cancers that can occur following sun damage, there are a number of other tumours, skin infections and changes to the skin that can also occur following sun exposure.



What pets are in a high risk category?


  • White cats
  • Cats and dogs with pale or pink extremities (ears, nose, eyes, feet)
  • Pets that have areas where the hair is sparse (for example, the belly)
  • Dogs that have only a thin covering of hair so that areas of unpigmented skin shows through - some specific breeds that fit this criteria include Dalmatians,\
  • English Bull Terriers and Whippets.


This list is not exclusive.


We will be able to advise you specifically on the risk for your pet. Make sure you ask us at your next visit.


What can you do to minimise the risks?


You should limit your pet’s sun exposure. Encourage them into the house or to shady areas between 10am and 4pm, in the high risk months. If you are unable to supervise them, provide access only to shaded areas while you are out, especially if your pet is a known ‘sunbather’.

Provide enticing shady areas for your pets, to encourage them to use those areas.


remember also that while sunbathing behind glass (eg a window) reduces sun burn (associated with UVB rays), the UVA rays that are associated with increased risk of skin cancer (in humans so most likely animals as well) are still able to penetrate glass so allowing you pet to sunbath inside is also not recommended.


Use a summer coat on dogs that have thin coats, where the skin can be seen and on unpigmented skin when they are out in the sun. Train them to get used to coats in the winter months so they will accept a light one in the summer. Make sure the coat is designed for the summer months and is a light colour to reflect the heat, as well as being a UV resistant fabric.


Apply zinc based animal sunscreen such as ‘Filtabac’ to areas such as the ears, nose and belly that can’t be covered by a coat.


Dog goggles or sunglasses are available from many pet suppliers. These are an excellent way to reduce sun damage to the eyes of pets.


If you live in an environment where it is very difficult to assist your pet in completely avoiding the sun and the resulting damage, think carefully about the breed and colour of pet you choose. We can assist you with this choice.

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