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Can a Cat Get a Sunburn?

Sun damage is just as harmful for cat skin as it is for ours. Here's how to protect your furry friend.

JaneA Kelley  |  Aug 19th 2014

My first cat, Iris, was a beautiful calico girl who was mostly white except for a large black and orange splotch on her back and a tiny little orange “I” shaped spot on the top of her head. Her nose was as pale as her head fur, and nothing made her happier than sitting on my mother’s back porch soaking up the hot Maine summer sun.

When Iris reached her late teens, I began to notice black, warty-looking splotches on the skin around the edges of her ears. "Could that be skin cancer?" I remember wondering back then. “Can cats even get skin cancer?”

It turns out they can and they do. But which cats are most at risk? And what can you do to protect your cat from sun damage? Here’s what you need to know about cats and sunburns.

1. Cats get sunburns, too

I once met a nearly hairless cat wandering the streets of a neighborhood in my home town. At first I thought he was a stray cat with mange because his skin was red, dry and cracked. I met his owner and found out he "just had a sunburn." Pale noses and ear edges can be easily sunburned, too.

2. White and light-colored cats are most at risk

This is kind of a no-brainer, if you think about it. The paler your complexion, the more careful you have to be careful to avoid overexposure to the sun, and the same is true for your cat. Most light-colored cats have very pale pink or white skin under that fur.

3. Sphynx and Rex cats also need protection

Sphynx and other hairless breeds such as the Peterbald don’t have the type of hair coat that protects their skin from the sun. Combine that with their heat-seeking nature, and you have a sunbather who could easily get sunburned. Although Cornish Rex and Devon Rex cats have fur, its unique texture and single coat don’t afford much protection from UV rays.

4. If your cat just got a lion cut, make sure he stays out of the sun

When groomers give long-haired cats a summer shave, they usually cut the fur very close to the skin, which adds to the risk of your little house lion getting a sunburn.

Given the risk (and pain) excessive sun exposure can cause your cat, what can you do to keep your cat protected? There are a few things.

1. Apply sunscreen

Be very careful if you choose to put sunscreen on your cat. Products with octyl salicylate and similar chemicals can be poisonous to your furry friend. There are plenty of dog-safe sunscreens, but very few cat-safe ones, so read the label carefully.

2. Provide shade

If your cat goes outside, whether to bask on your balcony or explore your yard, make sure there are plenty of places where your cat can be completely shielded from the sun.

3. Use UV protection window film

This product is inexpensive and very easy to apply, and it comes in tinted and clear varieties. Not only will it allow your cat to enjoy a warm sun puddle without the risk of exposure to harmful UV rays, it will increase your home’s energy efficiency and keep the sun from fading your carpets and furniture.

Has your cat ever been sunburned or developed cancer as a result of sun exposure? What do you do to protect your cat from the sun? Share your tips in the comments.

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About JaneA Kelley: Punk-rock cat mom, science nerd, animal shelter volunteer and all-around geek with a passion for bad puns, intelligent conversation, and role-play adventure games. She gratefully and gracefully accepts her status as chief cat slave for her family of feline bloggers, who have been writing their award-winning cat advice blog, Paws and Effect, since 2003.