I have often written about the danger of allowing pink-skinned cats outside. Now I can show you why. These are the ears of a young flamepoint Siamese I pulled from a vineyard in Los Alamos, California, a few weeks ago during a marathon trap-neuter-return job.
This very sweet female was estimated to be only about 18 months old. She and her sister both developed squamous cell carcinoma — often referred to by the acronym SCC — which resulted in amputation of their ear tips.
I knew immediately what I was looking at when I first saw the scabby-looking skin, despite the fact that the woman who lives there tried to tell me it was from fighting. These cats are not fighters; they are way too sweet! They are also predominantly white with pale orange points, blue eyes, and pink pigment. Prime subjects for SCC to strike.
I dubbed the girls Lily and Snow. It pained me to take these beautiful friendly cats to the vet for the necessary surgical removal of their ear tips. Even though Lily’s ears were much worse, we decided to be aggressive with both cats as a preventive measure against the spread of this deadly disease.
Because Lily and Snow were obviously not candidates for release after spay and amputation, the cats were put into a foster home to heal.
The vineyard sisters are lucky. While stubby ears might be disfiguring, it will save their lives. Now healed, they are looking for a forever home together — inside only, of course!
What to look for
SCC on the epidermis is caused by excessive exposure to the sun. Cats with white coats and pink pigment are 13 times more susceptible to developing this dreaded disease than cats of different colors.
Cats can even get sunburned, sometimes a precursor to SCC. (You can read all about it in JaneA Kelley’s recent article.)
Watch for subtle changes on ear and nose tips that might look like scabs or other similar irritations. Your vet will take a scraping and send it off for a lab test and diagnosis because SCC often mimics other possible skin conditions like ringworm, sarcoptic mange, or even allergies.
The Long Beach Animal Hospital points out that white-haired cats usually get the problem on the ears, head, eyelids, and tip of the nose, while non-white cats develop the lesions on unpigmented areas or areas of sparse hair. It occurs mostly in older cats, but the age at which it occurs depends on each individual’s amount of exposure to sunshine and lack of pigmentation.
Don’t wait — get your cat checked out
Last year an older street cat, a dark tortoiseshell, in Los Alamos was put down due to advanced-stage SCC, which had eaten away most of her nose and upper lip. Obviously in great discomfort and with oozing open sores, she could barely eat by the time the feeder called for help. If only he had not waited so long, this cat could have been treated and spared all the years of misery that led up to the state she was in at the time of her final trip to the vet
“Skin cancer from exposure to the sun is a real threat for some cats,” says Lorie Huston, DVM, president of the Cat Writers’ Association. “It’s particularly dangerous for white cats, those who are hairless, or those who have had haircuts.” Even indoor cats are at risk because many like to sunbathe in sunny spots in the house.
I asked Lorie about sunscreens, which she agreed can be tricky, because cats like to groom themselves continually. “It’s important not to use a sunscreen with anything toxic in it,” she says. “Sunscreens containing zinc oxide or any type of salicylate should be avoided. Exposure to the sun when its UV rays are at the strongest is the most dangerous, summer and winter alike. The best advice I can offer is to keep your cat out of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.” And if you have to, close the window shades to block the sun during these hours.
Since I live in sunny California and Lorie lives in Rhode Island, I wondered if geographical location made any difference, but she couldn’t draw a definitive link. “The largest percentage of my clients keep their cats indoor but certainly not all of them,” she says, which obviously makes a difference. That said, “in terms of skin cancer, it’s one of the more common, if not the most common, forms I see.”
No matter where we live, the challenge for us pet caretakers is that cats love to seek out the sun to soak up the warmth. Even a little kitten from the vineyard TNR job found some rays in the window of the “holding cell” building during the week of trapping.
Prevention is better than treatment
So please, protect your precious pets by keeping them inside. Remember that UV rays are still pouring down on cloudy days. If your cats like to hang out in windows or sunbeams on the floor, consider installing a UV coating to the glass. There are many DIY sunblock products to choose from.
If you have cats who fit the high-risk profile, examine their ears and noses often for telltale signs of SCC. Get them in for a vet check immediately if you find anything suspicious.
If you must let your kitties out, talk to your veterinarian about safe sunscreens, or at least keep them indoors during peak hours of sunshine. Go one step farther and build them a catio like I did with lots of shady spots.
Three of my four rescue cats have pink noses, and all of them have varying amounts of white on them. Three are longhaired, so that helps somewhat with sun protection. At least three of them were born feral, and outside still beckons strongly — therefore the catio.
I worry on sunny days and often check their whereabouts during the peak hours of danger. I have observed that, while the catio is their favorite “room” in the house, they do seek out the shade during the middle of the day and only sun worship in the early morning and late afternoon. Feline intuition or just good luck aside, I will continue to keep an eye on those cute little pink noses and ears!
If you are interested in giving Lily and Snow a loving forever inside-only home, connect to me by leaving a comment. Until then, they are safe in a foster home on the central coast of California.
All photos taken by the author.
Read more about cats and skin conditions:
About the author: Marci Kladnik, her four rescue cats, and one Scottish Terrier live in a small town with no stoplights or mail delivery. A retired graphic designer and technical writer, she designed and wrote for two publishers and two medical device manufacturers. She was also on the masthead of the monthly National Model Railroad Association Bulletin. For seven years Marci wrote an award-winning bi-weekly cat column for three newspapers; she is currently a contributing writer for Catster.com, an award-winning photographer, and an active professional member of the Cat Writers’ Association. Involved in TNR and feral rescue, she sat on the Board of Directors of Catalyst for Cats from 2007 to 2013. Her columns appear on www.catalystforcats.org.