What is Sunburn?
A cat is most vulnerable to sunburn in body parts that aren’t well-covered with hair: their ears, noses and any areas covered with white hair. Cats with thinner hair are also vulnerable.Cats who have developed sunburn will have several recognizable symptoms.
Cats love to stretch out and take a long snooze in a warm, sunny spot. Cats have excellent biological reasons for choosing sunny spots for their naps; as they sleep, their body temperature falls. Sunlight allows them to get warm again. Even with cats, excess sunlight can be too much of a good thing, especially if the cat’s hair is white or otherwise light-colored, or if the cat is hairless. Sunburn in cats is damage to the skin caused by the sun’s rays.
Symptoms of Sunburn in Cats
Like their human counterparts, a cat will show symptoms after its skin has had too much sun. These include:
- Redness of the skin in exposed areas (ears, nose, eyelids, belly)
- Pain in burned areas
- Itching and scratching (which can lead to skin ulcers and infection)
- Scaly areas of the skin
- Thickened skin where the burn developed. The skin will look like dry leather
- Hair loss along the edges of the cat’s ears
- Sunburns get progressively more severe
Causes of Sunburn in Cats
Cats can easily develop sunburn if they spend too much time in their favorite sunny spots. Some of the causes include:
- Too much time in sunlight, even indoors
- A thin or sparse coat of hair
- Bare spots on the body
- Hairless-breed cats are the most vulnerable to sunburn, even though they need to stay warm
- Lying in a sunny spot when the sun’s UV rays are the most intense (between 10 am and 4 pm)
Diagnosis of Sunburn in Cats
The vet will give your cat a full physical exam. As they are doing so, they are making note of all symptoms that indicate injury to the skin, such as redness, itchiness and scaly spots.
Not only does the vet look for the above symptoms, they also grade sunburns, dividing them into superficial partial thickness burns, deep partial thickness burns, and full thickness burns. The last two grades are the most serious forms of sunburn, which will require the cat to be admitted to the animal hospital for treatment, which is much more involved than the care a cat owner can provide at home.
Treatment of Sunburn in Cats
Sunburn treatment depends on the severity of the burn the cat has suffered. These range from topical or oral steroids to relieve the skin inflammation and antibiotics if the burn and scratched-up areas have become infected. The vet may shave the burned area and clean it with gentle cleansers. Once this has been done, they will apply a burn cream to the area. Some of this care will be prescribed for at-home treatment after diagnosis.
If the cat has suffered a full thickness burn, the vet treats the cat in the hospital with IV fluids, daily cleanings of the burned areas, bandage changes and, if the burn is very severe, skin grafts. The last treatment becomes necessary if over 15 percent of the cat’s body was exposed to sunburn.
At home, cat owners should limit their cat’s exposure to sunlight when the rays are most intense. Allow the cat to sun before 10 am and after 4 pm. Pull shades between those times, especially if the cat’s hair is white or light-colored.
Sunscreens formulated especially for cats can also be applied to the cat’s ears, nose and near-hairless areas. Sunscreens should not be of the human variety because they contain ingredients toxic to the cat’s liver. Cats are daily groomers, meaning the sunscreen can get into its body several times a day.
A gentle misting with cool water may help relieve the pain of a sunburn, although this may require two people to accomplish. A more severe burn may be relieved with a cold compress, held on the burned area for up to five minutes at a time.
Ask the vet about any cat-safe sunblocks that can be applied to the hairless areas of the cat’s body. Do not use any products with homosalate, octyl salicylate or ethylhexyl salicylate. Products with titanium dioxide can be considered for the tips of ears and noses, but check first with the vet. If a sunblock is approved, ask for one safe for cats.
Recovery of Sunburn in Cats
Once the cat has recovered from its sunburn, it can return to a normal, full life, except for being allowed to sun for long periods of time. Repeated sunburns can lead to squamous cell carcinoma, or skin cancer.
Inside the cat’s environment, pull shades down when the sun is especially intense. Pet owners should also consider adding a reflective film to windows that allow in the most sunlight. These help diffuse the sun’s rays to a degree.
During hot summer months, cat owners should not give their cats full-body shaves. The fur protects their skin from the sun’s harmful rays.