I have owned dogs my whole life. With each one, I try to be a better pet parent. I try to learn more and do more with each dog that comes into my life.
This week, I have to confess I have been remiss about protecting my dogs from the harmful effects of the sun.
Frankly, I hadn’t thought the sun was much of a problem for a dog. After all, our dogs don’t have to worry about wrinkles. And I thought they’re pretty well protected from sunburn by their fur.
It turns out I couldn’t be more wrong.
Wrinkles may not be a dog problem but skin cancer is. In fact, skin tumors are the most common tumors in dogs. And some breeds are more susceptible than others.
The three most common skin cancers in dogs are malignant melanoma, squamous cell carcinoma and mast cell tumors.
Most malignant melanomas occur on the mucous membranes like the mouth. But dogs can get them on body parts covered with hair about 10% of the time.
If untreated, they are fatal because they grow quickly and will spread to other organs.
Melanomas in dogs are caused by genetic factors. There are breeds at greater risk for this form of cancer. Schnauzers, Scottish terriers and other black dogs are prone to melanomas on their toes or on the toenail bed.
There seems to be a connection between a trauma or incessant licking and melanoma. This causes the cells to multiply and in some cases mutate into cancer.
Squamous cell carcinoma
This is the one form of skin cancer in dogs linked to sun exposure. It’s aggressive and can destroy a lot of the tissue surrounding the tumor.
It’s commonly found in dogs that spend time in the sun and dogs that live at high altitudes. They’re closer to the sun.
You’re likely to find this cancer on your dog’s nose, ears, or belly… areas where there’s no fur for protection from the sun.
Squamous cell carcinoma appears between 6 and 10 years old and generally affects dogs with short coats, especially if they have light skin and/or light fur.
Large breed black dogs are prone to squamous cell on their toes.
Keeshonds, Basset Hounds, Standard Schnauzers, Collies, Dalmations, Bull Terriers and Beagles are prone to this cancer.
Mast cell tumors
Another fatal cancer, mast cell tumors are the most common skin tumor in dogs. And no one knows for sure what causes them. There is a link to inflammation or irritants on the skin. Hormones may also affect mast cell tumor growth.
Sadly, I lost a dog to this. Her diagnosis occurred when she was 8 which seems to be the mean age for this cancer. Our vet surgically removed the tumors which gave her a few good years. But the cancer ultimately spread to her lungs.
These tumors affect the mast cells, which play a role in the allergic response. The cells cause the itching, swelling and redness on your pet’s skin that results from contact with an allergen.
But you need not worry that your dog is more susceptible to this form of cancer if they suffer from allergies. There’s no connection.
Once again, though, genetics play a role.
Certain breeds are prone to mast cell tumors. Boxers, Pugs, Boston Terriers, Labrador Retrievers, Beagles, Schnauzers and Golden Retrievers are more likely to get these tumors. My girl was a yellow Lab.
So if you notice sores that don’t heal or keep coming back, or masses on your dog’s body, see your vet immediately.
Not all masses and sores are cancer. One of my dogs is covered in fatty tumors. But the vet has biopsied all of them and none are malignant… thank goodness. Get them checked. Early diagnosis is key to successful treatment.
Skin cancer prevention
Mast cell tumors and malignant melanomas have a genetic component. There is no way to prevent them. Early intervention is your best option.
But sun exposure is a risk factor for squamous cell carcinoma. Limit your dog’s time in the sun, especially between 10 am and 2 pm.
Apply sunscreen to your pup’s ears, nose and other lightly furred/lightly colored areas of the body.
Be careful which sunscreen you choose for your dog. Avoid zinc oxide, which is toxic to dogs if they swallow it. Stay away from sunscreens that contain para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) and fragrance. Both can cause adverse reactions.
Look for a waterproof sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30 that blocks both UVA and UVB rays—broad-spectrum coverage.
There are many dog specific sunscreens on the market. But the FDA doesn’t test sunscreens for dogs. So there will be no claims on the label. As a result, you won’t know how effective it is at protecting your dog.
Ask your vet for a recommendation. They may just recommend a sunscreen made for kids.
I probably don’t need to say this but you should never use tanning lotion or tanning oil on your dog. This isn’t sun protection.
Try a little sunscreen on a small area first to be sure your dog doesn’t react.
When you’re certain your dog isn’t allergic to the sunscreen and they’re not licking it, rub it on all body parts that aren’t well covered with fur. And don’t forget the tummy between the hind legs. Rub it in so it gets through the fur and into the skin.
Allow it to soak in for a few minutes before going outside.
Avoid contact with the eyes. And just like you do, reapply your dog’s sunscreen after swimming.
What if your dog has a sensitivity to sunscreen or licks it off?
There are alternatives to sunscreen. You can try sun-friendly apparel. There are rash guards and sun shirts with built in sun protection factors of 50. Doggy goggles and visors are an option for tolerant dogs.
If you have a dog that spends a lot of time outside, you can keep them out of the sun by using an exercise pen with a sunscreen cover… almost like a beach umbrella.
How do you know if your sun protection is working?
You’ll know when your dog is sunburned if their skin is red and tender to the touch. Or if there’s hair loss, itchiness, dry or cracked skin. These are all signs of too much sun.
See your vet if any of these symptoms persist.
This is the time of year to enjoy the outdoors with your dog. Whether it’s a day at the beach or a romp in the backyard, be sure both you and your best buddy are wearing protection from the harmful effects of the sun.
Do you use sunscreen on your dog? Tell us which one you like in the comment section at the top of the page.