Do Animals Get Sunburns?

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After a long, snowy winter, it’s hard to resist the allure of warm summer days. Of course, they can come at a cost—including a sunburn. While it’s a well-known advisory for humans to slather on that SPF before taking in the rays, what about animals?

“Animals can get sunburn, just as people do, from too much sun exposure,” Paul Calle, chief veterinarian at the Wildlife Conservation Society in the Bronx, told The New York Times.

However, the Sun affects different creatures in different ways. “Wild animals are marvelously adapted to their environment, so those in areas with lots of sunlight usually have scales, feathers, or fur to protect them,” Calle continued. “They also retreat to burrows, shady areas or water; wallow in water or mud; or spray dust or water on themselves when the Sun is at its peak.”

So which animals are more susceptible to sunburn? According to Tony Barthel, curator of the Elephant House and the Cheetah Conservation Station at Smithsonian’s National Zoo, elephants, rhinos, and freshly shorn sheep are especially at risk. Studies also found evidence of sun damage in the cells of blue whales, fin whales, and sperm whales.

However, some creatures are equipped to protect themselves. For instance, the first eight or nine inches of a giraffe’s tongue is black and the rest is pink. “Some people theorize that giraffes have black tongues because they are out of their mouths a lot, and they don’t want to get sunburned on their tongues,” Barthel told Smithsonian.

Additionally, hippos “excrete a pinkish liquid that wells up in droplets on their faces or behind their ears or necks.” This substance is found to absorb UV light and prevent bacterial growth.

Snakes and reptiles can thank their scales for providing a little extra protection; not only do their scales protect them from UV rays, but they also help retain moisture.

When biology doesn’t cover it, some animals have developed their own tricks. According to Calle, some creatures instinctively protect themselves. Elephants throw sand on themselves in an effort to avoid sunburn. (And pesky bugs, of course!) It’s a learned behavior, as adults throw sand on their young.

“That is probably part of the teaching process,” Barthel says. “Not only are they taking care of their youngsters, but they are showing them that they need to do that.”

If you’re looking to protect a pet from potentially harmful UV rays, How Stuff Works recommends dog sunscreen, which can be found at pet stores. Horse and Hound even says children’s sunscreen works for horses!

However, Calle notes that “for people and animals, avoiding excess exposure to high-intensity sunlight is the best prevention.”