Monday, April 23, 2012

Sun Protection for Cats?

The way cats love to sun themselves, you'd never think they'd need sun protection! But the sun can actually damage a cat's exposed skin just as it does a human's. And too much time outside can also damage your cat's eyes, just like it does yours.

Known as "solar dermatitis", sunburn is most likely to affect hairless breeds like the Sphynx or Russian Peterbald, as well as thin-haired cats, those that have been shaved, and those with white areas or thin coats on the nose and ears. Basically, if you can see your cat's skin, that skin can get sunburned.

Although cats don't sunburn as easily as people (largely because most of them have the sense to get out of the sun before damage is done), it can happen if a cat is outdoors for a long time or gets trapped where there's no shade on a sunny day. And if you live in a climate where it's warm most of the year or at a high altitude, your cat is also exposed to more damaging UVA and UVB rays.

Initially, you may notice a little redness on the exposed skin after your cat has been in the sun for a while. This is similar to a first-degree burn, involving only the uppermost layer of skin. No blisters will appear with this mild type of sunburn and it can be treated at home.

You may see some hair loss along the edges of the ears. This would be similar to a second-degree burn that would cause blistering on a person, but the cat may not have blisters. Kitty may shake his head and scratch at the places because, as you know from getting sunburned yourself, they're painful, and then itchy! This may cause them to bleed and possibly even get infected.

In a severe sunburn, the cat's skin will appear leathery and may look white in color. This is comparable to a third-degree burn on a human and will require hospitalization for your cat to recover. Kitty will need IV fluids to stay hydrated and keep the electrolytes in balance. The veterinary staff will clean the wound and change the bandages daily until the area has healed enough for home recovery.

If there's infection, or if you suspect the third-degree situation described above, make a trip to the vet. But even a mild burn may warrant a visit, just to be on the safe side. Because there are typically no blisters with a second-degree sunburn on a cat, it may be difficult to tell the difference. The vet can shave and cleanse the area of the burn, analyze its severity, and monitor your treatment.  There are also topical steroid creams your vet can prescribe, as well as many other over-the-counter skin remedies that can help with the itching and dryness.

Why is it important for you to pay attention to sunburn in your cat? Because if it's left untreated and continues over many years, it can lead to squamous cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer! Cats actually have a higher risk of developing skin cancer than do dogs, and white-haired cats have a risk of it that is 13 times greater than their pigmented cousins. Over many years of sun exposure, the cat's skin will thicken in the areas where it's exposed. You may see a small red spot on the ear or nose. Get treatment quickly for this, as it can become much more severe, damaging surrounding tissue and even adjoining bones. And monitor that site in the future, as well, because SCC can recur in the same spot after removal.

SCC has many contributing factors in addition to sun exposure, including living with a smoker, eating canned food without good oral hygiene, and the use of flea collars. If you have a cat with white ears/nose and any of these risk factors, you definitely don't need for repeated sunburns to add to the risk! When caught early, SCC can be treated by removing the tumor. If it's not in the mouth, recovery is typically good. (But why treat when you can prevent?)

Fortunately, there's no need to panic. Pet sunscreen is available for cats who will be outdoors for lengthy periods. Always use a sunscreen approved for use on pets, not a human one. Sunscreen should be applied to the cat's ears and nose, or all over for the hairless breeds. It's especially important to apply if your cat has been sunburned before. This will prevent further skin damage. You can also put T-shirts on the hairless breeds to help protect them from sunburn, but make sure to cover the still-exposed areas with sunscreen, too. Keeping your cat out of the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when UV rays are strongest, is also helpful.

A cat's sensitive eyes are susceptible to sun damage, as well. Just like we squint in bright sunlight, a cat's pupils narrow in bright light to protect the eyes. Even so, many senior cats develop cataracts, just like humans. Cataracts will appear as opaque areas on the cat's eyes. These are caused by UVB rays, which damage the front part of the eye. With more cats living into their 20s these days, it's important to protect your cat's eyes from sun damage that can contribute to cataracts.

Cats can get SCC on the eyelids, an area where you can't apply sunscreen. Crazy as it may sound, protective eyewear is the only way to keep the sun from damaging your cat's eyelids. This may take a little adjustment, especially for cats not accustomed to wearing anything around their faces or eyes. But use patience, calmness, and distraction to introduce them to your cat gradually.

When it comes to sun protection for your cat, Ben Franklin's old statement again rings true: "An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure." Not only do cancer treatments and hospitalizations for sunburn cost a lot of money, they put your cat through unnecessary stress and trauma. And we all know how cats hate those!

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