Categories: burns

Thoughts about Sunburnt Cats and Amputated Ears

I think most of us realise that white cats are more susceptible to their ears being badly sunburned which can result in cancer and in turn result in the ears being amputated. Incidentally, a cat’s ears are also very susceptible to being lost due to frostbite.

White cat with amputated ears

The question is why are white cats more susceptible? Someone may wish to correct me but white cats are white because the fur lacks pigmentation. It is not that the fur has white pigmentation. Pigmentation blocks the ultraviolet light which damages the skin. Without pigmentation more light is able to impinge upon the cat’s skin. In addition, we know that the fur on the air flap of the cat is very thin, almost non-existent towards the tip.

The same level of very thin fur also exists on cats of different coat colours and it therefore makes you wonder why those cats don’t also get sunburnt ears. Perhaps they do but less so.

A counter argument might be that white fur should be more likely to reflect light. But it seems that the ‘transparency’ of white fur is the major influence.

Anyway, white cats are susceptible because their fur lacks pigmentation. This leads to the next thought which is why don’t domestic cats take evasive action when lying in the sun for a long time resulting in their ears becoming badly sunburned?

We know that the wildcat ancestor to the domestic cat is the North African wildcat. This cat does not get sunburnt. They are built for the conditions in which they live. However, the domestic cat clearly has lost his ability to live under certain conditions such as hot sun which is ironic because those are exactly the sort of environmental conditions under which the North African wildcat lived.

In addition, the domestic cat appears to have lost his ability to detect when the environmental conditions are detrimental to his health. Both of these aspects of the domestic cat indicates to me that he has lost some natural instincts through domestication. Perhaps the situation is that the wildcat was never under direct threat from the environmental conditions and therefore there is no inherent self-training through evolution which alerts the domestic cat to the dangers of being so badly sunburned that the injury threatens his life.

The Clinical Veterinary Officer of Cats Protection in the UK said:

“We regularly see cats in our care with badly sunburned ears which need to be amputated to prevent the development or spread of cancer… Cats are notorious for their love of lounging around in the sun but, just as with humans, this can be a very dangerous activity when the sun is at its hottest. White cats, or those with unpigmented white noses or ears, are at the greatest risk.”

People who care for white cats should ensure there cats are inside when the sun is hot.

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Michael Broad

Hi, I'm a 71-year-old retired solicitor (attorney in the US). Before qualifying I worked in many jobs including professional photography. I have a girlfriend, Michelle. I love nature, cats and all animals. I am concerned about their welfare.

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  • Fortunately, no cat will sunbath in nearly 100 degree weather here. They hide in very shaded places. Never had sunburn at all.

  • A more drastic preventive measure is tattooing the ears. The tattoo dye helps block the harmful rays. This is useful if the cat doesn't tolerate sun-block (some cats have an ID tattoo inside the ear, so this method is not as far out as it seems).

    • The tattoo is an interesting suggestion Sarah. I'm guessing that procedure is more common in countries where they regularly have high temperatures, as opposed to the UK where we can have sun, rain and snow all in one day ;)

  • Horace, my senior ex-stray (mainly white with some black) has sun/fight damaged ears. He loves sunbathing and sometimes I've noticed in places where his fur is less dense, that his skin looks sunburnt :( Occasionally he'll go and lay in the shade, but it's rare. Neither Charley (ginger & white) or Phoebe (ginger)enjoy laying out in the sun for too long. They spend more time in the shade or indoors during the day.

    I do try to make sure Horace has sun-block on his ears and vulnerable areas, but he's not always co-operative and UK weather is very changeable. Fortunately he's had minimal damage to his ear tips and the vet's given him the all clear.

    Michael you are correct, white IS the absence of colour. Pigmentation isn't just fur deep though, it's skin deep. Assuming that white cats (much like a Scandanavian blonde human) have very fair skin. Wouldn't that make them more susceptible to sunburn?

    • Good point about skin pigmentation. The lack of pigmentation in the fur probably also extends to the skin and therefore making the cat doubly vulnerable to the skin being damaged by ultraviolet light. I can see that you are very aware of the possibilities of your cats' becoming sunburned. My cat does not tend to lie in the sun for a long time. He prefers to lie in the shade. I wonder whether that is deliberate in order to avoid being sunburned or simply because it is cooler. I suspect it must be because of the latter reason.

      • Michael I wonder if their fur colour has an influence on how well they can tolerate heat? Do darker coat colours absorb more heat in the same way that dark clothing is said to?

        Despite having very thick and long fur, Sophie (grey & white) tolerated the heat in Cyprus, much better than Merlin (solid black) ever did. Or perhaps her dense fur provided better insulation against the heat?

        • Michele, you have a very good thought about heat tolerance. I missed that. Perhaps white fur does reflect some light and therefore is cooler for the cat whereas black fur absorbs light, warming the cat up and forcing her into the shade where she is protected from sunburn.

  • I have a Sphynx and two shorthair domestics. My Sphynx got a freckle. I went to the Sphynx owners' website and found little solace. Then I went to the baby section of a big box store and found UVA and B resistant plastic sheeting. It is most attractive to the house if it is professionally done and therefore difficult to remove later. It is also costly. So my house looks like I can't afford heat or better windows, but my babies can lie in the sun at their wim and I am much happier. They are strictly indoor cats so that keeps them totally protected. I had basal cell carcinoma although I have always avoided the sun so if I wasn't convinced they were safe--they would have to endure my tough love.

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