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Whether you’re heading out for a day at the dog park or going for a long afternoon hike, sun protection is important for both you and your dog. It’s well known that excessive exposure to the sun’s UV rays can increase a person’s risk for skin cancer and eye diseases. But what are the risks for dogs? Do dogs need sunscreen?
The answer is often yes—dogs are susceptible to sunburn just like people are, and sun protection is a must, though how much and under what conditions can vary from dog to dog. To help you know when and how to protect your pet, we asked the experts.
What Dogs Should Be Wearing Sun Protection? Experts Answer
All dogs can benefit from sun protection, but some need it more than others. As Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, DVM, explains, “Dogs with short or thin coats, and those with white fur and pink skin are more sensitive to the sun.” This includes popular breeds like Dalmatians and Bulldogs. Dogs without any hair at all are also particularly vulnerable to sun damage, like the Chinese Crested and the Xoloitzcuintli.
But even dogs with longer fur are susceptible to sunburn if they have light-colored pigment on the nose, eyelids, and ears. Examples include Australian Sheepdogs and Whippets. If your dog experiences seasonal hair loss due to shedding or has a health condition that’s caused hair loss, sun protection is recommended.
Breeds with darkly pigmented skin or thicker coats typically have a lower risk for dog sunburn, but it’s still possible—which is just one of many reasons that it’s important to make sure your pup has a shady spot to crash and keep an eye on hours logged in direct sunlight, just like you do for yourself.
Dogs at the greatest risk of sunburn have:
- White fur and/or pink skin
- Sparse or thin coats, or no fur at all
- Light colored nose, eyelids, and ears
- Excessive shedding or hair loss
- Healing wounds or shaved surgery sites
- Chronic skin conditions like dermatitis
- Existing sunburns
So do you have to slather sunscreen all over your dog’s body? Fortunately, that’s not how most dog sunscreens work—and there are other forms of sun protection, like dog sun shirts, that can work just as well depending on what areas need coverage.
How Do Dog Sunscreens and Dog Sun Shirts Work?
Sunscreen utilizes a combination of physical and chemical particles to block and absorb UV rays. Both human sunscreen and dog sunscreen work in this way, though dog-safe options typically avoid a number of ingredients common in human products to accomplish this goal.
Dog sun shirts, on the other hand, create a physical barrier against UV rays to protect your dog against sun damage. They’re typically made of stretchy, comfortable fabric and cover a dog’s chest, back, and belly.
So, which option is the most effective? According to Dr. Whittenburg, it depends on what part of a dog’s body needs to be protected.
For dogs that lie out in the sun, especially on their backs, a sun protection shirt will offer maximum protection. In order to be effective, a sun shirt needs to be long enough to cover the entire length of the dog’s abdomen—”even when stretched out in the sun,” Dr. Whittenburg adds.
We like this colorful option from PlayaPup, which comes in a range of sizes and is made from lightweight, quick-drying fabric that blocks 98% of UVA and UVB rays.
If you’re interested in going the sun shirt route, you can also try a dog cooling vest, many of which offer a similar degree of UV protection plus cooling—either via ice packs or water evaporation—at the same time. For maximum protection, concentrate on models with lots of belly coverage.
If your dog can’t tolerate clothing, needs full-body coverage (looking at you, furless friends), or could benefit from more targeted protection in some sparse patches, dog sunscreen works well.
Sprayable options are your friend for a quick, no-mess application. We like Emmy’s Best Dog Sun Skin Protector Spray for the price (and the sheer volume of sun screen you get), plus the grease-free feeling. Petkin’s Doggy Sun Mist is nice too, since it goes on white, making it easy to see where you’ve got coverage and where you’ve missed.
You’ll also want to consider your dog’s environment. If you’re at the beach or otherwise expecting to get wet, opt for either a sun shirt or water-resistant sunscreen, and be ready to reapply periodically.
If you only need to protect small areas of skin, like the nose or ears, sun balms like My Dog Nose It! Sun Protection Balm are nice, since they’re non-greasy, easy to apply and reapply, and water-resistant.
As tempting as it might be to pack one sunscreen for the whole family, Dr. Whittenburg says human sunscreen isn’t a good idea for dogs.
Though certain kinds might be fine for occasional use, many contain zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which can be toxic in high doses. It would be a big problem if your dog licked off large quantities.
Even when your sunscreen is labeled “safe for dogs,” it’s worth taking a quick look at the ingredient list, since these products aren’t regulated by the FDA. They shouldn’t have zinc or titanium oxide—but it’s always worth double-checking, just in case your dog decides it’s tasty.
For more dog sunscreen recommendations, check out “The 6 Best Sunscreens for Dogs for a Sunburn-Free Summer.”
The Final Verdict: Do You Need Dog Sunscreen?
Not only can a sunburn be incredibly painful for your dog, but it can contribute to serious health problems, like malignant melanomas, hemangiomas, and squamous cell carcinoma. If you’re on the fence, it’s better to err on the side of caution—especially since today’s dog sunscreens are usually quick and easy to apply.
For especially vulnerable pups, alternative measures may be better. Dr. Whittenburg says that while dog sunscreens provide a degree of protection against UV rays, physical barriers like sun shirts are safer still, and sometimes the only truly effective option may be to keep your dog inside during the peak sun hours in your area. Your veterinarian is a great resource for helping you know what kind of protection is appropriate for your particular pup.
So what do you do if your dog already has a sunburn? A pet-safe aloe vera treatment will help soothe your pup’s skin, and keeping them out of the sunshine will prevent the problem from getting worse as they heal. In severe cases, a trip to the vet may be in order.
When it comes to sunburns, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure—and we’re all for whatever lets you and your dog make the most of the great outdoors this summer, whether that’s the beach, the trails, or your own sunny backyard.
How We Chose
The products featured here were selected based on a comprehensive look at customer reviews across a wide variety of retail platforms and interviews with veterinary experts. We considered UVA and UVB protection, water resistance, moisturizing potential, scent, and ease of use. We’re also guided by the experience of living and playing alongside our own much-loved and strongly opinionated pets, who are never stingy with their feedback.