Pets and Sunscreen: Don’t Get Burned by the Myths!

August 7, 2019

a dog resting in the sun near bushes

When you are outside on a summer day, sunscreen is usually something you have on hand. We are all aware of the risks of prolonged sun exposure in people—from superficial wrinkles to dangerous skin cancer and damaging burns—and using sunscreen can help prevent all these things. While sunscreen is good for us, what about our pets?  

The ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center (APCC) gets a lot of calls about sunscreen and pets. Common questions are whether it’s toxic, or if animals need to wear it. So, we’ve put together a handy guide to answer all your burning questions below! 

Do Fido and Whiskers Need Sun Protection?

Does your pet need to wear sunscreen? Well, skin cancer is seen in pets, but that doesn’t mean that sunscreen is necessarily the answer. Pets with white or light-colored fur tend to be more predisposed to skin cancer than other pets. Light-colored pets are prone to developing skin cancer from the sun on their nose, the tips of the ears and around their eyelids and lips. But instead of using sunscreen, you should be mindful and limit their time in the bright sunshine during peak hours. Limiting your pet’s time in the hot summer sun also prevents overheating and dehydration. 

Pet-Friendly Doesn’t Always Mean Safe

While there are some sunscreen products marketed for pets, they are usually not tested by the FDA. So the effectiveness of these products is unknown. 

The main ingredients to avoid when picking a sunscreen for pets are zinc oxide and a group of chemicals referred to as salicylates. With repeated exposure to zinc oxide on the skin, pets can develop zinc toxicity, which can damage the red blood cells. Salicylates are products in the same category as aspirin, and when applied to the skin, your pet may develop mild skin redness and irritation. If you do pick a veterinarian-approved sunscreen for your pet, make sure it does not contain zinc oxide, and make sure it has a low concentration of salicylates. 

However, if your pet eats the sunscreen that’s when real problems can occur.  

If your pet eats sunscreen, they can develop stomach upset and will likely vomit; they may even have some diarrhea. If they eat a very large amount of sunscreen, the salicylates in the sunscreen can potentially cause ulcers in the stomach and even liver damage, although this is very unlikely. The zinc oxide in some products can contribute to stomach upset and possibly an allergic reaction, which can lead to swelling of the face and hives on your pet. In addition to the ingredients found in the sunscreen, if your pet eats the tube that the sunscreen came in, it can cause a blockage in their stomach or intestines, which can require surgery.  

Prevention Is Always Key

The best way to keep your pet safe from the sun is to talk to your veterinarian to determine what products, if any, your pet may need. When out in the sun, make sure you are limiting your pet’s time and taking breaks from the sunshine, especially during peak afternoon hours.

And when you’re out sunbathing or lounging poolside yourself, don’t forget to keep an eye on your skincare products. Keep any products far out of paws’ reach!  

If you have questions about whether to use sunscreen on your pet, or which products to use, contact your local veterinarian. If your pet develops a reaction to a product or gets into your supply of sunscreen, please contact an emergency veterinarian or the ASPCA Animal Poison Control Center at 888-426-4435 for guidance.