Solar Dermatitis in Cats and How to Prevent Cat Sunburn

Do cats get sunburn? The answer is yes! 

But in addition to discomfort and skin wounds, the biggest risk to feline health is the development of solar dermatitis, a type of chronic skin inflammation from sun exposure and UV damage to skin cells.

Since solar dermatitis can lead to skin cancer, it’s important to be aware of this condition. Here, you’ll learn how to prevent solar dermatitis in cats and how to recognize the symptoms so you know when to take your furkid to the vet.

What Is Solar Dermatitis in Cats?

Solar dermatitis—also known as photodermatitis or actinic dermatitis—is a type of skin inflammation that comes from sunburn (yes, cats can get sunburn!) or too much UV light exposure over time.

Symptoms range from mild pink or irritated skin in the early stages, to crusty lesions and wounds in more advanced stages of the disease. Solar dermatitis is most common on areas of the face with thin fur—especially the tips of the ears.

Over time, solar dermatitis can progress to squamous cell carcinoma or other forms of skin cancer.

What Causes Solar Dermatitis?

Solar dermatitis develops from too much sun exposure, sunburn, or damage to skin from ultraviolet light over time.

The condition is well documented in indoor cats who like to sleep by sunny windows. So, the disease is a risk for both indoor and outdoor kitties alike.

A cat’s ear tips are by far the most common location for sun damage and solar dermatitis. However, any hairless or thinly furred area of skin can be at risk. Other common spots include the nose and eyelids.

SEE ALSO: What’s Normal Behavior for My Cat?

Which Cats Have an Increased Risk of Solar Dermatitis?

Risk factors include both genetics and lifestyle.

Just like humans, cats with lighter skin and hair are more prone to UV damage to their skin. This means that white cats and those with very light fur—especially those with non-pigmented, white or pink skin—are more at risk for sunburn and solar dermatitis. Hairless breeds like Sphynx cats also have less natural protection.

Since solar dermatitis develops from sun exposure, a cat’s lifestyle can also affect their risk. Outdoor cats will naturally have more time in the sun than indoor pets. 

However, indoor cats can get solar dermatitis, too.

Many cats love spending hours by the window, whether watching birds or just napping in a warm, sunny spot. Unfortunately, sunlight filtered through a window can still be dangerous. Lots of time by the window increases a cat’s risk, especially if they are also white-furred with light-colored skin.

Locations with a high UV index—such as warm-weather climates or high altitude regions—may mean additional sun exposure risk.

Additionally, any kitties that have patches of thin or missing fur from another disease or recent surgery can also be at risk, since they’ve lost some of their natural sun protection.

Symptoms of Solar Dermatitis in Cats

Although it’s possible to develop solar dermatitis anywhere on the skin, thinly-furred areas of the face are more common—especially the ear tips, nose, or eyelids.

Depending how severe the condition is, a cat with solar dermatitis may show one or more of the following signs at the affected areas:

  • Red or pink skin.

  • Hair loss.

  • Itchiness, scratching, or head shaking.

  • Crusty or scaly skin, scabs, or wounds.

  • Deformation or misshapen tips of the ears.

  • Swelling or development of a skin mass.

Keep in mind that there are MANY other health conditions that can cause similar symptoms. It’s important to have your cat checked by a vet to determine what’s causing their symptoms so they can receive appropriate treatment.

SEE ALSO: Aural Hematomas in Cats

Health Risks of Sunburn and Solar Dermatitis in Cats

Solar dermatitis can be uncomfortable and lead to wounds and skin infections. However, the most concerning risk is the development of skin cancers such as squamous cell carcinoma. 

Although any cat can develop skin cancer, it’s well-established that sun exposure, sunburn, and solar dermatitis increase that risk. So, it’s best to prevent solar dermatitis and to seek care as soon as possible if symptoms develop.

Unless a cat is uncomfortable, has a serious wound, or has symptoms of illness or a medical emergency, solar dermatitis isn’t typically urgent. However, a vet visit should be scheduled as soon as possible because early treatment is best for preventing the development of skin cancer.

Treatment and Prognosis for Cats with Solar Dermatitis

The first step is a vet visit.

Since there are many possible skin conditions that carry similar symptoms, your vet may recommend tests like a gentle skin scrape to rule out causes like microscopic skin parasites.

If your kitty has a skin wound or infection, or if they’re uncomfortable, these things must be treated regardless of the original cause. This may involve prescription medications, wound care, and an Elizabethan collar to prevent further injuries from scratching.

A biopsy of affected skin is needed to rule out skin cancer. This is obtained under general anesthesia. If squamous cell carcinoma or any other type of skin cancer is discovered, referral to a veterinary oncologist is usually the next step. 

If solar dermatitis is present but there is no skin cancer, your veterinarian will discuss preventive measures to avoid further sun damage and give a cat their best chance of avoiding skin cancer.

Never give medications without talking to your vet team first! Some can be harmful to cats or make the condition worse.

How to Prevent Cat Sunburn and Solar Dermatitis

The best safety measure is to prevent sun exposure, and thus limit UV damage to the skin. Here are a few tips that can help.

  • Keep your cat indoors. If your pet must go out, provide well-ventilated, shady areas to take cover. Try to avoid letting them outside at peak sunshine hours, from about 10am to 4pm.

  • If your indoor cat likes to sun in the window, consider closing the blinds or curtains to minimize direct sunlight exposure. UV protective window screens or solar shades, an awning, or other protective barriers may also help. 

  • Use a cat-friendly sunscreen on vulnerable areas like the ear tips. 

    • Products made for cats are best. 

    • If a human sunscreen must be used, avoid zinc oxide and salicylate ingredients. Both can be toxic if ingested—which happens when cats groom themselves.

    • Choose the highest UV protection you can, ideally 30+ or higher. Ideally, select fragrance free, waterproof products.

    • Apply sunscreen a short time before your cat will be exposed to sunlight.

Talk to your veterinarian or an expert at the Pet Poison Helpline to determine if the sunscreen you plan to use is safe for your kitty.

A little knowledge and planning can reduce the risk of cat sunburn, solar dermatitis, and certain types of skin cancer. All of this can help your furkid enjoy some naps in their favorite sunny spot as safely as possible.

For any further questions or concerns about your cat’s skin, schedule a telehealth or in-clinic visit with our caring veterinary team. We’ll be happy to answer your questions!

 

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