Many Irish people are only too aware of the painful consequences of lying in the sun without proper protection. Severe sunburn is an experience that is not quickly forgotten. And nowadays most people are also aware that repeated episodes of sunburn can increase the risk of skin cancer later in life. The message about the dangers of excessive exposure to the sun has probably been sent out most clearly in Australia, where the slogan “slip, slop, slap” is known by everyone – slip on a shirt, slop on suncream, and slap on a hat.
But what about our pets? Do we need to worry about protecting them from the sun? Most dogs and cats are not badly affected in any way by the sunshine that we normally see in Ireland. The pigment in their skin protects them, by filtering out the dangerous, burning and cancer-causing ultraviolet radiation in sunlight. However, it is different for white animals. They have no ‘natural sunblock” of pigment to protect them – in the same way as fair skinned Irish people are more prone to sunburn.
Holly is almost pure white all over, and so she has very little pigment in her skin. She enjoys the sun, and lies in the garden, stretched out on her back, basking in the warmth. Despite her lack of protective pigment, most of her body never suffers from sunburn at all, because her fur coat provides a natural physical barrier to the sun’s rays. Her lower abdomen is the only vulnerable part of her body. There is no fur here, and the bare skin is directly exposed to the full glare of sunshine. The diagnosis of sunburn was easy to make.
On one of the first sunny days in May, Leah noticed Holly lying out in the sun all day. And then in the evening, she noticed her licking her abdomen more than normal. When Leah looked more closely, she could see that the skin was red and sore-looking. She simply applied after-sun lotion, and Holly seemed to settle very rapidly. And from then on, whenever it was a sunny day, Leah has taken care to apply total sunblock to Holly’s exposed abdominal skin. Holly still develops pink, itchy skin from time to time, but the problem has been more-or-less solved by using a human factor 60 water-resistant sunblock cream.
The problem of sunburn can be more difficult to deal with in some other animals. White cats have particular problems, with the tips of their ears and noses being very vulnerable. The lack of protective fur, the thin skin and the poor circulation of these areas makes them prone to overheating and burning. Unfortunately, in cats, repeated episodes of sunburn commonly lead to a much more serious consequence – malignant skin cancer. Cancer of the ears and nose is difficult to treat in cats. Radical surgery is needed, which means literally cutting off the ears and the tip of the nose. And even then, the cancer can recur. Some cats unfortunately need to be euthanased because of skin cancer which cannot be controlled.
Skin cancer does not develop overnight. The process starts with sunburn, which appears as red, sore, swollen skin. Repeated bouts of sunburn can progress to skin cancer over a period of months or years. If a cat develops severe sunburn of the ear tips, many vets will recommend amputation of the upper parts of the ear. If this is done early, the chance of a malignant, potentially fatal cancer developing is minimised. An earless cat appears odd at first, but cats are not vain about their appearance, and owners soon get used to the ‘new look’ of their pets.
However, it is better to prevent the skin from becoming burnt in the first place, by applying sun cream, as with Holly. Cats tend to try to lick off any cream that is applied to their skin, so you need to be careful about what you use. Some human sun creams have perfumes and other ingredients which can irritate the tongue, throat and stomach of a cat, so a bland, non-irritant sun cream designed for human babies is safest. You can also buy special pet sunblock on the internet. A complete sun block, of the highest ‘factor’ number available should be used. It is best to use a waterproof cream, which should have a longer lasting effect, and should be more resistant to the cat trying to rub it off. Many owners of white cats make it part of the daily routine to apply the cream to the ears and nose tip every morning throughout the summer months. The cream is applied just before feeding time, so that the cat associates the procedure with food, and accepts it more easily. Some sunshine is good for humans and pets, but don’t overdo it this summer. Remember to look after your pet’s skin, just like you look after your own.
- Sunburn is a common problem in white animals.
- In some animals, such as white cats, this can lead to skin cancer.
- Use high-factor, waterproof sunblock on sunny days to protect pets that are prone to sunburn
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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.