Published in the June 22 – July 5, 2016 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Dr. Jeanne Haggerty-Arcay
Like humans, our pets can suffer from sun-induced problems. Aside from the obvious issues that can be associated with the heat on sunny days, such as heat stroke, we commonly see skin problems associated with sun exposure. Although any color animal can be affected by the damaging ultra violet rays of the sun, white animals or areas without pigment are the most commonly and severely affected.
Solar Dermatitis: Solar dermatitis (sunburn) can occur in any animal with prolonged exposure to the sun. It is most commonly seen over the head, nose and ears. Dogs with white faces or white3 areas on the face are particularly susceptible. It is also seen over the belly, where there is often little hair for protection. Symptoms may include reddened skin, scaling and crusting of the affected skin. Repeated sunburn and sun exposure can lead to permanent skin changes and scarring.
Hemangioma/Hemangiosarcoma: These are forms of skin cancer which develop in response to UV damaged skin cells. They are most commonly seen on the belly of unpigmented or lightly pigmented dogs that like to lie out in the sun for extended periods of time. They appear as red dots on the skin which can increase in size and become raised over time. These lesions are often surgically removed but new lesions will appear if the UV exposure is not limited.
Squamous Cell Carcinoma: Squamous cell carcinoma is a common skin cancer seen most commonly in cats. Although it can be seen in dogs or cats of any color, it is most commonly seen on the white portions of a cat’s face (especially eyes, ears and nose). It often starts as a red and scabbed over area that either becomes an open sore or just never seems to quite heal. In cats it can progress to involve large portions of the face if not addressed. Treatment typically involves surgical removal of all affected tissue and can be effective in early stages. However, some portions of the face (especially the nose and eyes) do not do as well with surgery and may require other treatments, such as radiation.
Limit sun exposure. In many ways pets are like humans when it comes to sun exposure. UV rays are damaging and can lead to permanent skin damage and cancer.
Use sunscreen. Sunscreen can be used in pets, although it needs to be applied frequently and diligently. The biggest challenge is keeping the sunscreen from being licked or rubbed off the pet. Choose a sunscreen that is waterproof and safe for babies. It should be at least SPF 30.
Keep white pets indoors. White pets, especially cats, are just not designed to be outdoors. Facial skin cancer in white cats is very common and devastating, especially to clients who were unaware of the risks. Keep in mind that indoor pets can also have substantial UV exposure through frequent sunbathing in front of a window.
Perform regular skin checks. Be aware of areas on you pets which are vulnerable and check them frequently. Any suspicious areas or non-healing wounds should be checked by your veterinarian. When treated in the early stages, any of these sun-induced problems have a better chance of being treatable.
Dr. Jeanne Haggerty-Arcay received her undergraduate degrees in biology, biochemistry and Spanish from the College of Notre Dame, Belmont. She graduated from U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. She enjoys spending time with her husband and three young children.
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