Q&A: White dog getting a tan

My dog enjoys lying in the warm sun. I am concerned as he has a white coat. What can I do to keep him safe?

The main danger is the harmful ultra-violet (UV) radiation in sunlight. White dogs can go through life safe from the sun if their coat is dense enough to protect their white skin, and/or when exposure is limited to the early morning and late afternoon. However, when their coat is thin, protection is inadequate, especially on the belly, sheath and groin area, the nose (Collies), the eyelids, and the ears (cats).

Repeated exposure to UV rays changes the cell structure in the skin (metaplasia), which is unsightly, but safe. Later the cells become cancerous (anaplasia) – usually squamous cell carcinoma, which starts as rough, irregular patches, followed by weeping erosions, and eventually spreads to the lymph nodes. It can only be treated effectively early on, but even then it can often recur.

Prevent this by keeping your pet out of direct sunlight from 10am to 4pm, or if you can, check the UV radiation on a smartphone app to see when it is safe.

Alternately, protect his exposed skin: get the highest UV protection factor you can and look for a broad-spectrum product that blocks UVA and UVB. It is important to use it regularly, so it must be easy to apply and well tolerated by your dog. Most spray-ons are effective and water-resistant, but may sting raw skin or eyes, so be careful. When using creams or ointments, distract your dog’s attention for a while by feeding or playing with him, until he has forgotten to lick it off.

Some cases need old-fashioned stove polish: it is dense (UV-proof), black (so you can see when it is removed), and lasts about two weeks on a cat’s ears (which saves on the catch-the-cat routine).

Dr Anne Fraser, veterinarian

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