Walking in Sunshine

For optimum health, your dog (and you!) should spend at least a little time each day in the sun.


As our lives increasingly unfold in the glow of computer screens and are signaled through the dings of iPhone texts, our connection to the outdoors may become more and more disjointed. Workdays grow longer, so our walks with our canine companions often take place before dawn or after sunset, especially in the winter months. And when we are outdoors, concern about skin cancer leads us to limit our solar exposure.

Of course, the weather isn’t always so glorious, but when it is, it benefits the whole family to get outside! Sunshine has many health benefits for dogs and their humans.

As a result, direct exposure to the full spectrum of the sun’s rays is often the exception rather than the rule, particularly for those dogs in big cities with limited access to the outdoors.

In contrast, the ancients had an intuitive understanding of the healing power of the sun. It is no coincidence, for example, that the Greek god of medicine, Asclepius, was said to be the son of Apollo, god of the sun. The Greek physician Hippocrates (he of the eponymous oath, considered the father of modern medicine) had a sunroom at his sanitorium on the island of Cos, and sunbathing was used to treat a range of ailments, from metabolic disorders to obesity. “Sol est remediorum maximum,” wrote the Roman author Pliny the Younger. “The sun is the best remedy.”

Indeed, say some veterinary experts, making sure your dog has adequate sunshine can have a positive impact on his health and well-being. Just like giving him the opportunity to have his paws grounded to Mother Earth and to get great big lungfuls of fresh air, letting him bask in the sun’s rays not only feels good,  it can also boost his mood, immune system, and his healing capabilities.

Overall Wellness
Stephen Blake, DVM, of San Diego, California, notes that sunlight has been shown to have many benefits in humans, from lowering susceptibility to colds and viruses to improving joint problems and arthritis. A 2011 study in the Journal of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, for example, found that prolonged sunlight exposure increased lymphocyte production, suggesting that it might stimulate the immune system.

“If we see these benefits in humans, maybe a certain percentage of them also apply to dogs,” Dr. Blake says, noting the many biophysical parallels between our two species. “”Lack of sunlight doesn’’t often cause acute disease, but it can cause chronic disease. It’s usually a gradual process. It’’s like not getting enough calcium; you’’ll see the results of that deficiency over time.””

Glass and plastic filter the full spectrum of light. So, while sunbathing in front of a window or patio door may feel nice to your dog, it isn’t imparting the most important health benefits that unfiltered sunlight has to offer.

Indeed, giving dogs access to sunlight just makes sense on a visceral level. Without benefit of double-blind studies or peer-reviewed journals, the late herbalist and “natural rearing” pioneer Juliette de Bairacli Levi drew that conclusion from the natural world around her.

“Without sun there can be no life,” she wrote in her book, The Complete Herbal Handbook for the Dog and Cat, first published in 1955. “”The maximum of sun for all animals should be a kennel rule, with ample shade provided too, so that the dog himself can choose his own natural sunbathing hours or seek shade, as he desires. Sunlight is not merely a tonic and restorative and a potent destroyer of bacteria; it is also a vital food.””

Feelin’ Groovy
There’s a reason why sunshine on your shoulder – or anywhere else, for that matter – makes you happy: Sunlight stimulates the production of endorphins and neuotransmitters like dopamine and serotonin, which regulate mood.

“”I think you need sunlight to feel good in your brain,”” says Ihor Basko, DVM, author of Fresh Food & Ancient Wisdom: Preparing Healthy & Balanced Meals for Your Dogs (Two Harbors Press, 2010), who practices on the sunny island of Kauai, Hawaii. “Those neurotransmitters are involved in keeping you at an even keel in terms of emotion.”

“When humans don’’t get enough sunlight, they can develop Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, a mood disorder nicknamed “winter depression.” While it’s not possible to ask your dog if he’’s feeling a little blue, “how do you know that at some level he couldn’’t be happier?”” Dr. Basko asks. “”When you don’’t get enough light exposure, you could have a grumpy dog, one with a low-grade headache, who is anxious or irritable.””

Dr. Basko notes that to have sunlight exposure generate any appreciable effect and create a sustained sense of relaxed well-being, “you have to keep it going for a while to get the level up.” Taking your dog out a couple of times a week for a dose of sunshine isn’’t going to cut it; exposure needs to be regular – a lifestyle, not a quick fix.

I’’ve Got Rhythm
Light doesn’’t just signal to the brain that it’s time to secrete those happy-go-lucky neurotransmitters. “”Sunlight in general will also stimulate the pineal gland and other parts of the brain to regulate the production of melatonin,”” Dr. Basko explains. A hormone that is involved in the sleep-wake cycle, melatonin causes drowsiness and lowers body temperature. When sunlight hits a dog’s retina, it tells the pineal gland to stop making melatonin; when darkness falls, the body resumes production of the yawn-inducing hormone. Keeping this process in balance helps maintain your dog’s normal circadian rhythm – the cycle of sleep and rest, waking and activity that is his “body clock.”

Demian Dressler, DVM, author of The Dog Cancer Survival Guide (Maui Media, 2011), notes that “one of the risk factors for humans that increases cancer rates significantly is melatonin deficiency. “You need to have full darkness between 1 a.m. and 2 a.m., which is when the pineal gland is supposed to be secreting melatonin.” But if erratic exposure to sunlight upends your body clock and has you up watching reruns of “The Office” in the middle of the night, your trusty dog beside you, that’’s not good for either of you.”

“”Blue-wave light is pretty effective at suppressing melatonin levels, and where are we at night? In front of computer screens and big-screen TVs, with our dogs nearby,”” Dr. Dressler says. “”And that may be impacting cancer levels” – in both of you.”

Under My Skin
One of the biggest boons that humans get from exposure to natural sunlight is the production of vitamin D, which is synthesized in the skin.
Despite the fact that they have fur, dogs do produce vitamin D in their skin.

“Dogs just can’t make enough vitamin D for what their body needs, so they still need to get it in their diet,” explains Dr. Dressler. “Sunlight does hit their skin, and they can synthesize vitamin D. It’s just that dogs are not as efficient in converting 7-Dehydrocholesterol, which is the precursor to vitamin D, as other species.”

Regardless of just how much vitamin D sunlight imparts to your dog, what’s clear is that the vitamin plays an important role in the body’s functioning. “If you look at humans, there’s a whole variety of health issues associated with inadequate sunlight, and not just seasonal affective disorder,” Dr. Dressler says. “It’s suspected that low vitamin D is the culprit for increased rates of several kinds of cancers.”

Because it is so important in calcium absorption and bone development, vitamin D is a must for growing puppies. If a puppy does not have an adequate supply of vitamin D, which is necessary for calcium assimilation, he is at risk for the bone-weakening condition known as rickets, resulting in bowed legs and a curved spine.

Juliette de Bairacli Levi was a strong advocate of the importance of sunshine, particularly with puppies.

“Sunlight is essential to natural puppy rearing; there is no substitute for it, not electric sunlamps or anything else,” she wrote her book. “Puppies reared indoors in apartments or sometimes even below ground level in basements, as often happens in big cities in America and elsewhere, can never possess true health, and their disease resistance is very low.”

Sunning dogs should have access to water and shade, too, so they can decide when enough is enough.

Solar Healing
In many cases, the best place for convalescence is not the fluorescent-lit recovery room of your veterinarian’s office, but – weather permitting – the sunny expanses of your own backyard.

“Sunlight speeds up healing,” Dr. Basko explains. “It increases the production of endorphins, which are good for pain. Dogs can lick their wounds and sometimes make things worse. The positive emotional effect of sunlight in itself will make your dog feel better.”

Sunlight also has an important anti-bacterial role, he notes. “Sunshine can kill the extraneous yeast and bacteria that can grow in wounds. Anaerobic bacteria like the dark and damp, and sunlight helps dry out wounds and helps kill microscopic fungi.”

If your dog must be hospitalized, inquire whether the veterinary practice has full-spectrum lighting in the recovery area. These “grow lights” mimic unfiltered sunlight, and impart some of its benefits.

Let There Be Light
How much sunlight is enough for your dog to reap its health benefits? Dr. Basko recommends 20 to 30 minutes twice a day for most dogs, and 40 minutes twice a day for large breeds.

Dr. Blake points out that being outdoors is beneficial to your dog even if he is not in direct sunlight, because of light’s reflective qualities. “You can get sunlight even if you’re in shade,” he says. “It doesn’t have to beat down on you.”

And when experts advise that dogs should get out in the sunshine, they do mean out. Glass and plastic filter out ultraviolet rays, which prevents the full spectrum of light from reaching your dog. So, while sunbathing in front of the picture window or patio door may feel nice to your dog, it isn’t imparting the most important health benefits that unfiltered sunlight has to offer. “If you don’t get out in it,” Dr. Blake says simply, “you don’t benefit from it.”

The solution for housebound dogs is to replace fluorescent or incandescent bulbs with full-spectrum lighting, which is readily available at most hardware and home-improvement stores.

“Have the full-spectrum light on in an area where your dog spends a lot of time – near his food bowl, or his bed,” he suggests. And – keeping those circadian rhythms in mind – be sure to turn it off at bedtime.

Too Much of a Good Thing?
Of course, use common sense when exposing your dog to sunlight. Dogs with black fur will overheat more quickly because their dark coats absorb the heat, while white or light-skinned dogs are more prone to sunburn. Care must also be taken with brachycephalic, or short-faced breeds, which have difficulty cooling off in hot conditions.

Dr. Basko suggests consulting the UV index, an international standard that measures the strength of ultraviolet radiation from the sun on a given day. The index ranges from 1 to 11 and over, with 7 being about the median. “Anything higher than 7, and certain animals are going to be prone to skin cancer,” he says. If you live in a part of the world where the ozone layer is depleted, such as Australia, you might have to limit your dog’s exposure accordingly.

Building up antioxidants in your dog’s skin is one way to safely increase his tolerance for the sun. “You could increase your dog’s resistance to sun damage by getting antioxidants from green tea or vitamins A, C, and D,” always with a veterinarian’s supervision, Dr. Basko says. “Topically, you can also apply green tea mixed with aloe or marigold extract.” And many vegetables, including dark leafy greens, are rich in antioxidants, and “all have what you need to protect your skin.” (When feeding raw vegetables to dogs, whose digestive tract cannot break down cellulose, remember to pulverize or pulp them sufficiently so your dog’s body can utilize all their nutrients.)

Martin Goldstein, DVM, of South Salem, New York, author of The Nature of Animal Healing (Ballantine, 2000), points out that sunshine is not the main culprit in diseases such as skin cancer. It’s merely the catalyst.

“I do not believe that the sun causes problems, any more than I think shoveling snow is the cause of heart attacks. It’s not the sun, it’s the stuff that you put into your body that causes disease – the sun is just an instigator, a trigger,” he says. “Why would God make the light of his own house hurt his own children? I soak in the sun beyond what you can imagine. I love, love, love, the sun.”

Dr. Goldstein recalls the time he went to Jamaica for a restorative vacation. Eating mostly fruit and bicycling around the island, “I got to a point where I was in the Jamaican sun six to eight hours a day,” he recalls. “After two weeks, I looked 25 years younger.” But the night before he departed, he gave in to temptation and attended a Rita Marley concert. In the spirit of the occasion, he downed a number of the island’s famous cocktails – only to find the benefits of his healthful respite undone. “I woke up the next morning,” he says, “and I had puffy eyes, crows feet, and wrinkles.”

Like most things, including reggae-laced vacations, sunlight is a balancing act: Your dog needs just enough, but not too much. What he eats and his state of health count for a lot in how his body reacts to those doses of the sun’s rays. But it’s important that your dog get some exposure, ideally every day. “If we didn’t have the sun, we’d be dead,” Dr. Blake concludes. “The importance of sunlight has been ignored because you can’t patent it and sell it on TV.”

And that’s the wonderful thing about the healing power of the sun: Just walk out the door, and there it is, free for the taking – provided, of course, the weather gods comply.

Back to the Basics
Sunshine seems such a simple requirement for a healthy life for your dog. But there are other obvious ways for our dogs to connect with the world around them – and us– that we sometimes forget.

Dirt on his paws. How often do your bare feet make contact with the earth? While dogs don’t wear shoes (at least not most of the time), the increasing amounts of time they spent in buildings and on artificial surfaces cuts into this vital connection with Mother Earth, too. Putting paw to earth reconnects your dog with the earth’s ground energy – also known as “earthing” – and, its proponents say, rebalances the body.

Fresh air. Oxygen is oxygen, right? Well, not really. Our increasingly airtight homes and workspaces can trap toxins, mold, microbes, and other microscopic nasties. Your dog’s lungs will benefit from access to fresh outdoor air in all but the most polluted environments. And to keep the air quality in your home the best it can be, open windows often and air out your house daily, if only for five minutes.

Fresh water. Dogs should have unlimited fresh water available all the time, to keep their bodies well hydrated. Plan ahead if you are traveling or out for the day, and bring water and a bowl for your dog. Offer the best-quality water you can; if you don’t drink the tap water in your home, don’t offer it to your dog, either. And if your dog is raw fed, don’t panic if he drinks only sparingly: Raw-fed dogs get a lot of hydration compared to their kibble-fed brethren, and will head to the water bowl much less frequently.

Real food. Most of us slip up and have a Twinkie (or a Milkbone) every now and then. But as with humans, dogs benefit from diets that are as natural and unprocessed as possible. Raw-food diets are the most bioavailable in this regard, but not everyone will choose to take the route, for a variety of reasons. If that’s the case, consider home cooking (like a home-prepared raw diet, this gives you total control over the sourcing of your dog’s food, an important consideration in this age of commercial dog-food scares). Or research canned or dry food for brands with the highest-quality ingredients.

Sunbathing with a friend builds bonds, too.

Companionship. Dogs, of course, provide unparalleled companionship for humans, and the psychological and even physical benefits to our species have been well documented. But as pack animals, dogs need their social needs met, too. If you have a single-dog household, arrange regular playdates for your dog. Getting involved in canine sports like agility or canine freestyle (also known as doggie dancing) is one way for you to build your bond with your dog, and satisfy another basic need, which is . . .

Exercise. We know what a regular exercise regimen does for our well-being, and the same applies to our dogs. Keeping your dog’s body moving will improve mood, keep weight in check, reduce anxiety and expends energy that might otherwise be directed at the legs of your antique sofa. And remember that exercise can be mental, too: Toys that engage your dog’s problem-solving skills will give her brain a workout, too.

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Denise Flaim is a professional journalist and breeder of Rhodesian Ridgebacks. She lives in Long Island, New York, with her three children (triplets!) and husband. She is also the author of Your Rhodesian Ridgeback Puppy: The Ultimate Guide to Finding , Rearing and Appreciating the Best Companion Dog in the World.”