Sunscreen for dogs after surgery – or for any exposed skin

Dogs don’t need sunscreen, do they? Most of the time they do not. Their fur shields their skin very well. However, there are situations where dogs can become severely burned if we are not vigilant, and we actually need to put sunscreen on our dogs.

The first possibility that came to your mind is probably hairless dogs, such as Chinese Crested dogs. And yes, dogs with no hair can get sunburned just like a person! However, any dog can become “hairless”, at least in spots. Recently I had a reminder when my dog had surgery. He had a large mass removed from his hip. The surgeon wasn’t sure how wide she’d have to go, so she shaved from his butt to his ribs! His incision is healing well, but after he spent only 30 minutes in the yard, I saw his skin was very pink.

I felt like a failure for a dog mom.

Dog skin typically isn’t designed to see sunlight. So on my dog, that shaved area was seeing its first UV rays – EVER! That means we had some very sensitive skin! In the past, I have had dogs come in to the clinic with second degree burns on their surgery site – simply from the sun. Most surgical incisions heal in 10-14 days, and then we no longer worry about it. The fur, however, takes much longer to regrow. So our guard is down because the stitches are out, but this poor skin is still exposed. We need to protect it until the hair returns. This can take weeks.

A third situation where a dog may need sunscreen is dogs with seasonal flank alopecia. This is a pattern of hair loss on the sides that, you guessed it, is seasonal. (I have an article about it here). Once again, we have skin that is used to being covered by fur now exposed to the sun!

Some dogs have very thin hair coats, and can get sunburned even though they are not bald or shaved. So just because your dog has some hair, do not discount the need for sunscreen!

Our last category is dogs with a certain auto-immune disease, such as DLE – Discoid Lupus Erythematosus. This disease causes ulcerations on the nose and face in response to exposure to UV rays, so sunscreen is often recommended for these dogs’ faces – every day.

sunscreen for dogs

My Sam, shaved for his tumor removal.

Of course, covering the exposed area with a shirt would be easiest, for some post-surgical dogs, or bald dogs. But not all areas are coverable, like heads and butts (like my poor guy). So if your dog is in any of these situations, which sunscreen do you use? Are they all the same?

No, not all sunscreens are safe for dogs, and some work better than others. There are two classes of UV blockers – chemical barriers and physical barriers. The chemical barriers block UV rays by causing a chemical reaction at the level of the skin. These are also more common. Examples of these ingredients are avobenzone or homosalate or octocrylene, to name a few.

Physical barriers are Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. These are typically marketed for sensitive skin, in the human world. They impart a white color to the skin when applied, and they physically do not let the sun’s rays through. It’s almost like wearing clothing over that region! Most dermatologist recommend these physical blockers for humans, as they are considered more broad spectrum and effective.

With dogs, we have to be careful. These physical barriers work well, but we need to avoid anything with the ingredient Zinc Oxide. Why? Zinc is very toxic to dogs, and if they lick off any sunscreen, Zinc can cause a severe anemia that can be fatal! Also, along the toxicity lines, PABA, or para-aminobenzoic acid, should be avoided as well. Why? It too is toxic if the dog (or his buddy) licks the sunscreen. PABA is a chemical barrier (making it less ideal already), and doesn’t show up in very many sunscreens these days, so it’s less of a factor.

So what does that leave? Titanium Dioxide is our winner! And, conveniently, many sunscreens marketed for dogs contain this ingredient. You may also find baby sunscreens in the “human section” containing this, and also lacking the two ingredients to avoid.

Bottom line – consider sunscreen for your dog with thin hair, or especially after surgery! Of course, we don’t want to rub anything into a healing incisions, but you can rub around it. And one the stitches come out, rub away!

Read the ingredients on the label of anything you buy, and don’t trust it just because it says “for pets.” Finally, if your dog will be with you for hours outdoors, you’ll need to reapply every couple hours, just like a person would.

Who knew our dogs could be so high maintenance? Wait…yes, we knew.

Posted in Dermatology, General health.

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