Can cats with white ears get skin cancer?
Sadly, yes they can. Just like us, cats with pink skin can become sunburnt; and eventually this can lead to skin cancer (a squamous cell carcinoma).
In both cats and people, sunburn is caused by ultraviolet light causing damage to the skin cells. Ultraviolet, or UV, is a type of light with more energy than visible light, and exposure to it can damage the DNA of skin cells. Fortunately, a one-off sunburn is unlikely to cause cancer - the cells have very efficient mechanisms for repairing the damage, called “UV Dismutases” - so most sunburns will fade and heal within a few days. However, regular exposure to UV and frequent sunburn will result in the accumulation of genetic damage in the affected cells, which makes the development of squamous cell carcinoma much more likely.
Actually, they aren’t - any cat can develop skin cancer. However, UV-induced cancers are much, much more likely in cats with white hair because they usually have pink skin in these areas. Black skin contains a pigment called melanin which blocks the harmful UV (this is why humans, whatever our basal skin pigmentation, tan when exposed to sunlight - our skin makes additional pigment to protect us). Pink skin lacks this pigment (and unlike us, cats don’t develop a protective suntan!) so the cells are more exposed.
No, the other common site is around the mouth and nose (although any part of the skin can be affected). These areas are at highest risk because the cat’s fur is thinner, or absent, there; the lighter hair cover means that more UV reaches the skin surface.
The most common initial symptom is a small skin lesion that looks like a scratch or a graze. However, it doesn’t heal as you’d expect, and gradually expands. Sometimes, it may form raised reddened or raw-looking patches; and occasionally sections of skin appear to die, turning black and crusty. In many cases, the cat doesn’t seem at all bothered, although if the open “wound” becomes infected, it can be irritating to them.
Melanomas are seen in cats, but they aren’t usually due to sunburn; unlike in people, most melanomas in cats are actually fairly benign and are unlikely to spread. They are a tumour of the melanin-producing cells, and usually look like a small very dark or black lump stuck to the surface of the skin; occasionally they burst and leak a black tarry liquid. Surgical removal is the treatment of choice, and should be done as early as possible, just in case your cat’s been unlucky and developed a more aggressive variety.
Squamous cell carcinoma is a malignant tumour that invades local tissues and frequently spreads to the lymph nodes. Early treatment is really important, and there are three main options:
Prevention is much better than cure! Unfortunately, most cats won’t accept a broad-brimmed sunhat… However, application of a high factor suncream to the ears is essential in the summer months, to block the UV and minimise the risk of sunburn and skin cancer.
If you’re concerned about your cat’s skin, make an appointment to see one of our vets!
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