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Skin cancer in cats – do cats really need suncream?

Whilst most of us are enjoying the rising temperatures and basking in the beautiful sunshine, our cats are doing the same. There’s nothing more our cats like than lying in a patch of sunlight or stretching out on the windowsill taking in the rays. When the sun’s out, we know to protect our skin, regularly apply sun cream, stay hydrated and look for shade when needed. So should we be protecting our cats too? And why?

Does prolonged exposure to the sun and UV light damage my cat’s skin too?

Yes, just like us, cats’ skin needs protection too. Melanin (the pigmentation in skin) and fur are natural barriers to harmful UV rays. But our pets’ skin is in danger where fur is sparse (ears, noses and tummies) or where there is a lack of melanin (light coloured fur, especially white cats). Older cats over 5 years of age are more likely to develop disease; so keep an eye on our older feline friends particularly. 

What can happen to my cats’ skin? 

There are a range of effects, as in humans: 

Sunburn and Solar dermatitis

With prolonged exposure to sunlight and UV rays such as that experienced with sunbathing, our cats’ skin can become burnt or sun-damaged just like ours. If left untreated, sunburn can become solar dermatitis. This is where the deeper structures of the skin are inflamed, red and sore, leading to crusting lesions, scabs. Eventually this can develop over months or years into cancer. 

Squamous cell carcinoma 

One of the most common skin cancers of cats is squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Lesions are crusty and scaly in their appearance. They usually start with small areas appearing like a little scab or scratch. At first these lesions can even heal and reveal normal skin underneath. But with prolonged sun and UV exposure they reoccur and worsen into larger, deeper scabs and locally invasive cancer. SCC is slow to progress and although locally invasive (affecting the tissue where the scab / lesion is found directly) it is slow to metastasise (spread to other areas of the body). Multiple lesions are common though, so it’s important to check other vulnerable areas too. 

Can SCC be treated? 

The prognosis of cats with SCC varies depending on where the lesion is and how early it’s caught. If caught early, and it’s on an accessible area such as the ears, your vet may recommend surgery to remove the affected tissue. If lesions are found on the ears, surgical treatment is called a pinnectomy (ear tip removal). It doesn’t affect your cat’s ability to hear. If the area is harder to operate on and remove such as the nose or tummy, your vet may recommend cryosurgery; in which extreme cold is used to freeze and kill cancer cells.

How do I protect my sun seeking cat from getting skin disease caused by the sun?

If you’re using sun cream, chances are your cat would benefit too. Benefits have been seen for applying a factor 15-30 cat friendly sun cream to those sparsely haired areas such as ears, nose, and tummy. Avoid adult sunblock as they often contain zinc, salicylates and propylene glycol which are toxic to cats, and as cats like to groom a lot, sun cream can be ingested often. Try to entertain your cat for 5-10 mins after application of sun cream to let the cream absorb and ideally apply 2 layers 15mins apart and then top up regularly throughout the day. 

It is suggested that cats are kept inside during the hottest part of the day – between 10am and 4pm – to prevent access to the sun if they are big sunbathers. In addition, UV films can be added to the windows to protect our persistent cats that climb into the windows and push away blinds and curtains. 

Enjoy the weather but remember to stay safe out there and, if in doubt or you have concerns about your cats’ skin contact your regular vet. 

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