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Do Animals Get Sunburned?

If you’ve ever been sunburned, you know how painful it can be. But wild animals spend all of their time outside. Do they ever get sunburned?

Photo by Chad Merda

Animals can get sunburn, but most have protections to prevent it. Just like wearing clothes and sunscreen protects us from the sun, many animals have fur, wool, hair, scales and feathers to protect them.

Animal defenses against sunburn work well until humans get involved. For example, domesticated pigs are bred to have less hair. This means their skin is more exposed to sun and more likely to burn. And sheep are shorn — their version of a haircut — and can get sunburned when their skin is exposed. 

Some of our pets are at risk too. Dogs can get sunburn, particularly white ones. This is because they often have fair skin under their light-colored fur. Short-haired dogs, dogs with a thin coat and hairless dogs are also more likely to get sunburn.

You can help your dog avoid sunburn by not taking walks in the afternoon. If you are outside in the sun, make sure your dog has some shade.

Of course, some animals don't have any fur, feathers or scales to protect them from the sun. Take pachyderms like elephants and rhinoceroses. They have thick hides, but they often cover themselves in mud or dust to protect their skin. And many animals avoid the sun, staying in the shade during the heat of the day.

Some animals that live in places where it is usually sunny have specific adaptations to protect them from sun damage. That's why the first part of a giraffe's tongue is black before fading to pink. And hippopotamuses — another animal with no fur — make a fluid to provide protection from ultraviolet rays.

It's the ultraviolet rays from sunlight that cause sunburn in humans and wildlife. In particular, sunburn is caused by ultraviolet B, or UVB, rays. 

Don't let cloudy skies fool you. As much as 80 percent of ultraviolet rays can pass through the cloud cover, making sunburn possible even on a cloudy day.


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