Cats love to lie out in the sun, dozing in the warmth of the rays and watching the world go round with half-lidded eyes. But can this idyllic life in the sun cause problems? Cats, just like humans, are at risk of sunburn. As the days get longer and the sun gets hotter, cat owners should be vigilant to ensure their pets don’t suffer harmful consequences from their snoozy sun-worship. 

Are all cats at risk?

Any cat can get sunburn. But the risk is much higher in cats with white hair, thin hair or no hair at all! These cats have much more sensitive skin, which is more easily and quickly damaged by exposure to the sun. Cats with patches of white hair are also more at risk. Also, those with thinner hair, such as cats recently shaved for a veterinary procedure. 

Where do they tend to get burnt?

Sunburn can happen to any part of the body. In cats, it is most commonly found on the ears and nose. These areas are often sensitive and hairless, which makes them more vulnerable to the sun. Cats with little pink paw pads can also get pad burns from contact with hot surfaces. Cats who like to sprawl out on their backs in the sunshine can also be affected on their tummy and groin areas, especially if these are thinly haired. The back, tip of the tail and eyelids can also be at risk. 

What does sunburn look like in a cat?

Sunburn in cats will initially appear as redness and irritation to the affected areas of skin. The skin may feel very warm to touch. Affected skin will be extremely sensitive and often painful, so be cautious and try and take a look with minimal handling if you suspect your cat may be affected. Blisters may form. Cats appear irritated by the sore skin and can scratch and cause trauma to the area. 

Cats exposed to enough sun to cause burns will likely also be suffering from a degree of heat exhaustion and dehydration which can make them quite unwell. If your cat is panting, very quiet, weak or floppy, it is important to seek immediate veterinary attention.

If you think your cat has sunburn, keep them indoors out of the sun, offer water to drink, gently spray the affected area with cold water or apply a cold compress if tolerated. You may also want to contact your local veterinary surgeon for advice. 

Do cats get skin cancer due to the sun?

Yes, too much sun exposure can lead to ‘solar dermatitis’: red, sore, crusty areas of skin which can then develop skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma. Cats with white or thin hair are most often affected. Skin cancers most often develop on the nose and ears – both sparsely haired areas exposed to the sun. Squamous cell carcinomas often present as crusty scabs, or wounds that just don’t heal, rather than a mass or lump. These areas are often itchy and sore. Dry, scaly skin on the ears or nose which then progresses to ulceration is always a concern for skin cancers. 

Skin cancers can be highly aggressive. So keep a close eye on your cat’s ear tips and nose, especially if white or thinly haired, and consult a veterinary surgeon if concerned.

Can sunburn be prevented?

There are two ways to try and evade the dangerous side effects of those hot sunny rays. 

Firstly, applying sunscreen to vulnerable areas such as the ears, belly and nose can help limit sun damage. Always use a sunscreen specifically for cats, not a human cream.

If you haven’t used it before, try testing a little amount on a small area of your cat’s skin. Check over the next 24 hours that the skin doesn’t look red or irritated. If all is fine, use the sunscreen daily through the summer months. Try and apply in the morning. Distract them with a meal, a play or some fuss for ten minutes or so until the cream is absorbed, and they cannot lick it off. 

If applying sunscreen is not possible or practical for you, consider keeping your cat indoors during the midday to mid-afternoon period when the sun is at its hottest and the harmful UV rays are at their peak. This is especially relevant for owners of white or very thinly haired cats. If your cat loves to lie on a sunny windowsill, they can absorb UV rays that way, so you can buy UV blocking film to cover a window of a preferred spot. 

I’m worried, my cat loves the sun!

Cats love a good sunbathe, as do we all, and most will be absolutely fine with some sensible precautions. As the weather starts to heat up, remember our simple guidelines of sunscreen and minimising exposure to keep our feline friends safe this summer. 

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