While fur protects skin from the sun to an extent, dogs and cats can get sunburned, and they can develop skin cancer, too.
My sister’s white cat, Prince, persuaded (or should I say purr-suaded me?) me to learn more about this topic. I was visiting my sis this summer to see her new house in Colleyville, Texas, which features a screened porch that gets direct sun in the afternoon.
I noticed that Prince (below), who was frail and having some health problems, loved to lounge in the hot sun on the porch, which maybe soothed his aches and pains. One afternoon I observed that his ears looks bright red and was concerned he might be getting sunburned. We brought him inside and within a few hours, his ears seemed to be OK. But it raised some questions.
Pets at Risk
When I got back to New York, I called New York City veterinarian Jill Abraham, VMD, who is board certified in veterinary dermatology from the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine, to learn more. “Fur is a pretty good block for the sun, but it’s not foolproof, especially if you have cats with white hair, for example,” she says. “We do see squamous cell carcinomas on the ear tips of cats, on their noses and even on eyelids.”
As for dogs, Dr. Abraham says pit bulls and other breeds with light-colored fur, short coats and less hair on the belly are vulnerable to sunburn and skin cancer — “especially the ones that like to lie on their backs and sunbathe,” she says. Their ears and noses can burn, too. Animals who have a condition that causes hair loss, such as certain skin diseases or allergies, or if they’ve been clipped short or shaved for a surgery, are also vulnerable to sun damage.
What to Watch For
Dr. Abraham says to keep an eye on your pets’ skin and watch for anything new, “like a red spot or open sore that isn’t healing within a week or two, or that is changing or growing quickly, especially in an area of less hair.” See your veterinarian right away, as early detection is the key to the least amount of treatment with the highest chance of a cure.
Treatment options are similar to those for people, says Dr. Abraham. Usually surgery is required, although sometimes laser surgery is an option. Radiation may be an option for some skin cancers. And cryotherapy, laser surgery or topical treatments are options for precancerous spots. See our (human) Treatment Glossary for the basics on these.
Shade. The best protection for pets, Dr. Abraham says, is providing shade for them all year long, and getting them out of the sun. Also, because animals don’t sweat the way people do, it’s harder for them to cool themselves. Don’t forget lots of water for outdoor pets. “And never leave a pet in a car unattended,” she says.
Clothing. For pets who have to be out in the sun, consider clothing. “More companies are making rash guards and sun protection clothing for dogs,” Dr. Abraham says. “There might be some that cats could fit into, if you can get them to tolerate it! Even UV-protective T-shirts that are made for people could be an option for some dogs. And I know of at least one company that makes sun-protective eyewear for dogs.”
Window treatment. Remember that windows allow dangerous UV rays to penetrate, too, both at home and in your car, so you might consider getting sun protection film or shades for the windows.
Sunscreen. While there are some sunscreens on the market designed for pets, Dr. Abraham advises caution, as cats and dogs both will do their best to lick it off. Certain ingredients, such as zinc, could make them sick if ingested. And some sunscreens that are made for dogs are not necessarily safe for cats. If you do use one of these products, she says, “it’s best to distract the animal while the product dries completely so it’s less likely that they’re going to ingest any of it.”