The fun-in-the-sun summer months have officially arrived, which can only mean one thing: It’s time to start thinking about sun protection for your pets.

That’s right — furry family members can also suffer from the damaging effects of the sun’s powerful rays.

The Skinny on Sunscreen 

The sun gives off different kinds of ultraviolet rays. UVB rays cause sunburns, while UVA rays lead to sun-induced aging and skin cancer.

Not too long ago, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) revised its rules for regulating sunscreen labels. New developments are also likely to result from last year’s passage of the Sunscreen Innovation Act. The bottom line, however, is that when choosing a sunscreen for yourself or your pet, pick one that blocks both UVA and UVB. These products will be labeled “broad spectrum” and are the products that help prevent sunburn, skin cancer and premature skin aging. If a product has an SPF (sun protection factor) higher than 15 and is broad spectrum, the label may state that the product reduces the risk of skin cancer and early skin aging when used as directed. In my mind these are preferred products.

Pet-Safe Products

That said, not all products are OK to use on a pet.

The thick, white cream that lifeguards slather on their noses contains zinc oxide, a common ingredient in diaper-rash ointments. Zinc oxide is effective as a sunscreen for humans, but it’s toxic for dogs. If ingested, it can damage your dog’s delicate red blood cells, causing them to explode. The resulting anemia can be severe and require a blood transfusion.
Bottom line: Never use sunscreens that contain zinc oxide on your dog.

One veterinarian I consulted, who specializes in dermatology, recommends a BullFrog sunscreen that contains no zinc oxide and low amounts of octisalate — a salicylate that is a frequent ingredient in sunscreens. He recommends this product for pets at risk of sunburn and skin cancer due to thin coats or pale noses.

Having said that, I wouldn’t use it on cats at all as sunscreens that contain salicylates — even a small dose — can land your feline in the kitty ICU. (The most common salicylate is acetylsalicylic acid, also known as aspirin.)

Pet-Specific Products

I did find some products on the market specifically for pets. These products contain ingredients commonly used in human sunscreens and the labels have no obvious safety red flags.

But their labels do not contain sunburn-prevention claims, possibly because the FDA does not test sunscreens for pets. One product makes no claims at all, except indicating that the product is considered a supplement.

Other Sun-Protection Measures

When we go out in the sun, we tend to don hats, sunglasses and special UV-protective clothing. Your dog can, too!

Doggles makes protective eyewear for canines. It contains a UV-protective coating on shatterproof lenses.

There are also canine rashguard shirts and visors with UPF 50 (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) that meet the recommendations for good-quality sun protection. Just keep in mind that these products aren’t perfect — if your dog likes to sunbathe on her back, for example, rashguard shirts don’t cover the delicate skin between the hind legs.

For pets who spend ample time outdoors, you can also consider outfitting an exercise pen or a crate with a sunscreen cover, which functions like a beach umbrella and blocks the sun’s rays.

Ultimately, the best protection is sun avoidance. Keeping your dog or cat out of the sun, especially between the peak sun hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., offers the ultimate in foolproof protection.

Dr. Ann Hohenhaus, a practicing veterinarian for nearly 30 years, is board-certified in both oncology and internal medicine. She maintains her clinical practice at The Animal Medical Center in New York City, providing primary care to her long-term patients and specialty care to pets with cancer and blood disorders.

This article was updated on June 19, 2015. 

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