Just like humans, cats can get sunburn too. Over time the damage caused can increase the risk of developing squamous cell carcinoma which is a skin cancer.
White or light coloured cats, cats with white or light coloured ears, noses and breeds with thin coats such as Devon Rex, Cornish Rex and Sphynx cats are most susceptible to sunburn. This is because of the lack of melanin (skin and hair pigment), and protective hair in these areas. The ears are most commonly affected, although eyelids and noses can also develop sunburn. Outdoor cats, especially those who spend a lot of time outside are also at greater risk.
Solar dermatitis (also known as actinic dermatitis) is a common disorder in areas with warm, sunny climates.
What are the symptoms of sunburn in cats?
Many pet owners don't realise their cat has sunburn or solar dermatitis and mistake them for other skin disorders such as allergies. Just as with other burns, sunburn can be graded according to the severity of the burn.
First degree (superficial partial thickness)
The top layer (epidermis) of skin is affected, there may be some mild redness of the skin, but shouldn't be any loss of hair.
Second degree (deep partial thickness)
The top (epidermis) and deeper layers of skin (dermis) are affected and the skin is red and painful. There may be some hair loss along the margins of the ears. There may also be swelling and a great deal of pain.
Third degree (full thickness)
The burns have extended to all layers of skin and possibly the underlying tissue. Hair loss has occurred and the affected area may be white. If the nerves have been destroyed, there will be no pain.
Over time, prolonged sun exposure can lead to chronic damage to the skin, dermatitis becomes progressively worse each summer until persistent ulceration and squamous cell carcinoma can eventually develop. Symptoms include:
Scaling, thickening of the skin around the ears
Itchiness which may cause your cat to shake his head and scratch at the affected area causing bleeding and possibly infection
Squamous cell carcinoma:
Crusting lesion which progresses to an ulcer which doesn't heal
Redness, irritation and hair loss around the affected area
Also keep in mind if your cat has sunburn, he may also have heat stroke, which is life threatening. So even minor cases of sunburn should be seen by a veterinarian. Symptoms of heat stroke can include panting, bright red gums, drooling, weakness, anxiety, bleeding and collapse.
Diagnosing sunburn in cats
Sunburn can usually be diagnosed during physical examination of the burned tissue. If infection is present a sample may be taken and cultured to determine the type of bacteria present so that the best antibiotic can be prescribed.
There are a number of conditions which produce similar symptoms to solar dermatitis, so your veterinarian may need to perform some tests to come up with a definitive diagnosis.
Skin biopsy and histopathology to evaluate the cells and look for other possible causes such as mites.
How is sunburn and solar dermatitis treated?
If you believe your cat has been sunburned seek veterinary attention immediately. Sunburn is exactly that, a burn to the skin and it is extremely painful. Treatment depends on the severity of the burn.
Superficial (first degree) sunburn
- The area will be clipped and a topical antiseptic applied.
Deep or full thickness (second or third degree) sunburn
- Topical antiseptic applied to the affected area.
- Antibiotics may be required if an infection is present.
- If the sunburn is severe, topical or oral steroid cream may be prescribed.
- The affected area may be bandaged.
- Intravenous fluids may be necessary as severe burns often result in fluid loss.
- Analgesics may be prescribed to relieve pain.
Preventing sunburn in cats
Prevention is better than cure in this case and the following should be followed with vulnerable cats:
Keeping cats cool on hot days