White cat by a window

Skin cancer in cats

  • Cats with white or light fur and/or a short or thin coat are particularly prone to skin cancer
  • Not all types of feline skin cancer are caused by exposure to sun, but it is a leading cause
  • Commonly affected areas include the skin around the eyes and nose, and tips of the ears
  • Keeping your cat out of strong sunlight and using specially-formulated sun cream can reduce the risk
  • Check any suspicious growths on your cats as some can be fatal without early intervention

What causes skin cancer in cats?

Although not always linked, skin cancer in cats is often caused by exposure to the sun. Cats with a light or white and/or thin or a lack of fur are most at risk, especially if they have suffered sunburn at any point. Some studies show that the compulsive licking of certain areas can also damage the skin and increase the chance of skin cancer. Certain breeds may also be at a higher risk.

What does sunburn look like on cats?

Sunburn can appear as red skin or hair loss. The most common areas affected are the nose, belly, inside legs, ear tips, the skin around the lips and eyes, as well as any other area where skin pigmentation is low.

How do I protect my cats from sunburn and sun-related skin cancer?

Discourage your cat from lying in the sun during times of peak UV intensity, usually between 10am or 3pm, either by keeping them inside or ensuring that they remain in a well-shaded spot. If that is not possible, use sunscreen to protect their skin. Look for a specially-formulated feline sun cream as these will be the safest and most effective, but if you are unable to find this, opt for one suitable for human babies instead. Check that it is fragrance-free, comes without an ingestion warning, is non-staining and of an SPF of at least 15, ideally 30. Ingredients such as zinc, which are found in many adult sun creams, can be toxic to cats if licked. Apply sunscreen liberally and reapply during sun exposure.

A white cat being examined by vet
White cats are among those most at risk of developing skin cancer.

What are the symptoms of skin cancer in cats?

Skin cancer in cats can take many different forms, including lesions, ulcers, scabs, warty lumps and bumps on the skin. They may be black, brown, grey, pink or red in colour.  Look out for any unusual lumps and bumps on your cat and seek veterinary help if you find anything unusual. If the cancer is growing on the nose, you may notice nosebleeds, breathing difficulties and nasal discharge.

Most lumps and lesions found in cats are benign but early intervention will give your pet the best chance of recovery if the growth is found to be cancerous.

What are the different types of skin cancer?

Malignant melanoma

This cancer develops in the skin’s pigment-producing cells (called melanocytes). It is normally found in areas of mucous membranes such as the mouth and nose, but in rare cases can also be found on the skin with fur. This type of cancer has the ability to grow fast and can quickly spread to lymph nodes and other organs. In humans, exposure to UV light is the primary cause of the disease but the trigger is less clear in pets. Genetics may play a part.

Squamous cell carcinoma

This type of skin cancer is usually caused by exposure to the sun. It can start out as what is known as solar dermatitis; often red, crusty-looking areas – usually on the tips of the ears – that may seem to come and go, and may be mistaken for a minor abrasion. This may progress to become cancerous needing surgery or specialist therapies such as radiation therapy to control it. This type of cancer can also occur on other areas of the face such as the eyelids or nose, where it can be very challenging to control. It rarely spreads to other parts of the body until later stages of the disease.

Mast cell tumours

This cancer is found in the mast cells of a cat’s immune system and can manifest as a lump on or under the skin. Genetics, inflammation and irritation are linked to the causes for the disease and Siamese cats are thought to be at a higher risk.

Stella's story

Stella the cat had both of her ears removed

Stella, a 12-year-old Turkish Angora, developed suspected skin cancer on her ears and needed to have both of them removed. As a white cat, she was at an increased risk of suffering from the disease. But while she looks a little different now, she now has a clean bill of health and is in a happy home found for her by Blue Cross.

How is skin cancer in cats diagnosed?

If your vet suspects skin cancer, they will often carry out a fine needle aspiration or biopsy so that the cells can be examined under a microscope and determine whether or not the lump is cancerous. If the sample cannot establish a diagnosis (and they sometimes can’t as they are very small) the vet will discuss whether a surgical biopsy is appropriate for your pet. Sometimes a sample of fluid from the lymph nodes will be taken for diagnosis and X-rays may be taken if a  type of cancer that spreads rapidly is suspected.

How is feline skin cancer treated?

Thankfully, most skin cancers can be treated and cured successfully. In some cases, sores can even be treated before they turn cancerous. Often, though, an operation to remove the cancer will be needed. It’s not unusual for cats to need the outside of their ears removed to eliminate the cancer, if it grows in that area. Radiation or chemotherapy may also be offered.

What is the prognosis for skin cancer in cats?

In many cases the prognosis is very positive; most go on to make a full recovery and lead a normal lifespan without any further problems. Recovery will depend on the type of cancer and how advanced or aggressive it is, and in some cases, the disease will return.

— Page last updated 24/05/2023