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Solar Dermatitis in Cats: How to Prevent Cat Sunburn

Image via Fabio Lamanna/Shutterstock.com

By Kate Hughes

There is pretty much nothing that cats enjoy more than lying sprawled out in a warm patch of sunlight. However, while lazing in the sun may look safe (and feel really good), it is not without its dangers.

Cat owners should be aware that, like humans, it is possible for cats to get too much sun. Kitties that spend too much time soaking in rays may develop solar dermatitis.

Some cats are more susceptible to the disease than others, but with proper protection, owners can help keep their cat safe from the sun and the damage it can cause to their health.

What Is Solar Dermatitis?

Solar dermatitis is a progressive skin disease that can eventually lead to cat skin cancer in the form of malignant tumors called squamous cell carcinomas.

Symptoms of Solar Dermatitis in Cats

In its initial stages, solar dermatitis can look like scaly skin or redness. As it advances, ulcers, crusts and scabs may develop. Another indication that your cat may have this disease is that he won’t stop shaking his head or scratching at the affected areas.

Cats who develop solar dermatitis usually get it on their faces and ears. “It’s often seen on the nose and around the ears where there isn’t much hair protecting the skin,” says Dr. Corey Saba DVM, DACVIM, associate professor of Oncology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia.

“We also see it around the eyes, on the eyelids and on a cat’s lips,” adds Dr. Susan Nelson, DVM and clinical professor at Kansas State University College of Veterinary Medicine in Manhattan, Kansas.

Which Cats Are Most Susceptible to Solar Dermatitis?

All cats can get solar dermatitis, but they are not all equally susceptible to the disease. “When someone says solar dermatitis, the first image that comes to mind is a white cat,” says Dr. Nelson.

“Cats with white or light-colored fur, as well as cats that were recently shaved, are at greatest risk of the disease, which most often affects the lighter portions of light-colored cats. Also, the cat doesn’t have to be entirely light-colored—even cats that are black and white have a high risk.”

Dr. Saba adds that outdoor cats are at much greater risk of solar dermatitis than indoor kitties. “However, the risk for an indoor cat is not zero, because many cats sit in the sun by windows,” she cautions.

How to Prevent Solar Dermatitis in Cats

There’s always some risk when sun exposure is involved, but there are ways protect your cat from solar dermatitis, especially if she’s susceptible to it.

Preventing Solar Dermatitis in Outdoor Cats

For obvious reasons, outdoor cats are at highest risk for solar dermatitis. “In these cats, try to limit their outdoor exposure during peak sun hours. That is, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. should be off-limits,” Dr. Nelson explains.

If that’s not possible, make sure your cat has shady spots to hang out in so she isn’t in the sun all day. “This is especially important if you only let your cats outside in an enclosed space like a ‘catio,’” Dr. Nelson explains. “Not all of those enclosures are built with shade. It’s just something that owners should be mindful of.”

Preventing Solar Dermatitis in Indoor Cats

Inside cats are at a lower risk for solar dermatitis, but any time a cat sunbathes, he’s soaking up UVA and UVB rays. Dr. Nelson says that curtains can be helpful in blocking out sunlight, but most cats won’t let a little bit of fabric stop them from getting some sun. “I recommend getting UV-blocking films for your windows. That way, light still comes through, but some of those harmful rays will be filtered out,” she explains.

Is Cat Sunscreen Effective at Preventing Solar Dermatitis in Cats?

While there are pet-friendly sunscreens on the market, most of them aren’t recommended for cats. Dr. Fiona Bateman, DVM, DACVD, assistant professor of Dermatology at the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Georgia in Athens, Georgia, says that many of the active ingredients found in sunscreen are toxic for cat health. “These include zinc, salicylates and propylene glycol,” she notes.

Dr. Nelson adds that sunscreens can be particularly dangerous for cats because once applied, cats will almost immediately start grooming themselves to get it off. This means that they’ll be ingesting the ingredients anytime they clean themselves.

Treatment for Solar Dermatitis

If the disease progresses into cat skin cancer, the site of the squamous cell carcinoma is usually treated with surgery to remove as much of the tumor as possible. Dr. Bateman says that other possible treatments include cryotherapy, photodynamic therapy, intralesional chemotherapy, laser ablation and topical medications. “Typically, squamous cell carcinoma responds poorly to systemic chemotherapy protocols,” she adds.

Any cat owner who suspects their cat is at high risk for or is suffering from solar dermatitis should make a visit to their veterinarian, who can offer more specific cat health advice regarding diagnosis, prevention and treatment.