Sun related skin cancer in cats

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Whatever your skin type, adequate sun protection is the key to enjoying the summer safely. The same applies to sun-worshipping cats, especially those with light-coloured or thin fur.

Why is the sun dangerous?

Strong sunlight contains high levels of ultra-violet (UV) radiation that penetrates and damages skin cells. This damage disrupts skin-cell DNA (a cell’s instruction book) causing abnormal growth. Over time, abnormal areas of damaged skin become cancerous. Excessive exposure to UV light can cause a type of cat skin cancer called squamous cell carcinoma (SCC). Cats can get other forms of skin cancer (mast cell tumours and malignant melanomas) but we understand less about what causes these.

Which cats are at risk of skin cancer?

Young cats (under five) rarely develop SCC because the effects of sun damage are cumulative. Even if they spend their summer glued to the patio, signs of damage may not appear until they’re much older. Cats with white or ginger fur are the most at risk. They have less of the protective skin pigment, melanin, making them more likely to get sunburnt.

What does SCC in cats look like?

SCC can grow anywhere but the most common places are the nose, eyelids, and ears. ‘Solar dermatitis’ is the early stage of SCC. Small, red, crusty changes appear along the edge of your cat’s ear. Often, these minor wounds come and go so are easily mistaken for injuries.

The most common signs of SCC are:

  • Non-healing scabs and sores that get worse in the summer months.
  • Black, crusty patches of skin.
  • Raised, red skin lumps. How do vets diagnose SCC? Your vet may diagnose SCC based on the appearance of your cat’s skin. Some cats need a general anaesthetic and biopsy.

Can we treat SCC?

It depends on the size and location of your cat’s SCC; ears are the most straightforward area to treat. Although drastic, your vet may operate and remove the cancer by amputating all or part of your cat’s ear. (Cats do very well after this surgery and are still as beautiful as ever!)

The nose or eyelids are more difficult to treat. Your vet might refer your cat to a specialist for treatment such as radiotherapy, photodynamic (light) therapy, or cryosurgery (freezes the cancerous cells). Sometimes, if the cancer is advanced, your vet will plan palliative treatment to keep your cat as comfortable as possible.

How do you prevent SCC?

Cat suncream! It actually does exist and, with practice, most cats will tolerate it. Try to apply it regularly before and during your cat’s sunbathing session. Human sun cream isn’t cat friendly — your vet can recommend the best formulation for your cat. If your cat disagrees with your suncream plan, try keeping them indoors during the hottest part of the day (between 11am and 3pm).