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Do Cats Need Sunlight to Be Healthy? (Vet Answer)

Bynewsmagzines

Mar 2, 2023
cat is sleeping while basking in the sun heat


Many cats seek out sunny spots to nap in, but do they need sunlight to be healthy? Cats do not need sunlight for their biological health the same way humans do. For example, cats do not synthesize vitamin D when their skin absorbs sunlight1.

In fact, there are very real risks to prolonged and chronic sun exposure, just like in humans. But keeping our cats happy and healthy also means allowing them to engage in natural behaviors such as sunbathing.

This article goes over some of the benefits and dangers of sunlight for cats.

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Natural Cat Behaviors

When scientists discuss animal welfare, they focus on five essential freedoms that animals need to have a good life.

  • Freedom from hunger and thirst
  • Freedom from discomfort
  • Freedom from pain
  • Freedom from fear
  • Freedom to express normal behavior

One of those five freedoms says that animals need the freedom to behave and act as they naturally would. Anyone who has seen a cat sunbathe knows this behavior is natural for them and that they enjoy it.

So, science itself tells us that choosing to sunbathe boosts their quality of life—if they want to do it.

Street red cat basking in the sun
Image Credit: Alexander Sobol, Shutterstock

Risk of Sunburn in Cats

Despite the benefit of sunbathing for a cat’s well-being, spending prolonged time in the sun has some very real and dangerous side effects. Cats can get sunburned like humans. They are particularly susceptible to parts of their body that do not have much hair; the nose and ears are some of the more problematic areas.

After chronic or repeated sunburns, the tips of the ears or nose can scar and change color and shape. If this happens, it is also more likely skin cancer will develop.

Solar-Induced Skin Cancer in Cats

Skin cancer can also happen in cats, and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma can be caused by too much sun. It usually starts as crusts and sores that do not heal. It needs intensive veterinary treatment because it can be a painful and nasty cancer. It can happen in any breed; however, it is particularly common in white-skinned cats or cats with patches of white around their face.

Common places for solar-induced cancer:

  • Ears
  • Above the eyes
  • Nose
  • Eyelids
  • Lips
sick white cat lying on the floor
Image Credit: Iryna Mylinska, Shutterstock

Can Cats Overheat?

A healthy cat that can get up and move away is not likely to overheat in the sun because it will get out of the way. But if they can’t, they can be in danger. And, at the very least, their third freedom—freedom from pain—will be violated. So always make sure your cat can get away from the sun if they want to.

This most infamously happens in cars but can happen anywhere a cat’s movement is restricted. For example, I have seen cats overheat in their carrier, even if it’s outside a cage can force a cat to endure the heat of the sun and yet be unnoticed.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

Do cats need sunlight as humans do?

The short answer is no. Humans need sunlight because that is how we get vitamin D. Cats, on the other hand, get all their vitamin D from their diet. Their skin cannot process vitamin D at all. So, while humans can have metabolic problems, cats do not.

Biologically the only thing cats get from sunbathing is extra heat which they can get from other sources if the sun is not out. And, if it is so cold that they need the sun to warm up, there are other bigger problems that need to be addressed first.

cat sleeping near window
Image Credit: tache, Shutterstock

How can I protect my cat from the sun?

If you are concerned about your cat getting too much sun, you can try the following:

  • Cat-safe sunscreen
  • Lattices or sheers can break up the intensity of the sun but also allow some of the rays through
  • Keep them indoors, especially during the sunniest parts of the day
  • Close the blinds during the sunniest part of the day and open them when the rays are less intense

Should I get my cat a sunlamp?

Sunlamps are not worth the risk. Cats do not realize how dangerous they can be and can easily burn themselves or knock it over. I do not recommend getting a sunlamp for your cat.

What if my cat can’t sunbathe?

If you live in a place without much sunlight, do not worry, you are not depriving your cat. Cats can live happy and healthy lives without sunbathing.

Instead, you can offer other ways for them to express natural behaviors. The following lists enrichment ideas that can be easily substituted while the sun hides.

  • Extra comfy and soft beds for them to cuddle on
  • Shelves for them to watch out the window
  • Climbing trees
  • Scratching posts
white cat on scratching post
Image Credit: Piqsels

Will my cat get seasonal affective disorder in the winter?

Depression is difficult to measure in science. Even in humans, it is difficult to research. As a result, there is no scientific literature on this subject in cats. But I do not think you need to worry about it—like, at all.

Instead, focus on what science does tell us—if a cat has their five freedoms, it will have a good life. And there are many ways to enrich a cat’s environment to encourage safe and natural behaviors.

Cats are happiest when their lives are enriched in the following ways:

  • They are physically comfortable.
  • They are provided with ways to be physically active and can get exercise.
  • They have ways to be mentally stimulated.

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Final Thoughts

In a veterinary clinic, the negative effects of sunbathing are so much more common and devastating than the negative effects of not sunbathing that it can be hard to justify allowing cats to sunbathe at all. But at the same time sunbathing in moderation is excellent for healthy cats.

If you think that your cat is sunbathing too much, think about why that might be. It could be because they need more options to choose natural behaviors—they need more enrichment in their environment. If sunbathing is the only thing to do, then that’s what they will do.

In general, balance the behavioral benefit of sunbathing against the negative health risks. And especially if your cat is white or you live somewhere with intense sunlight, take extra precautions to protect them.

Sources

  • The Merck Veterinary Manual. Whitehouse Station, NJ: Merck & Co., Inc. 2023
  • Uhl, E. W. (2018). The pathology of vitamin D deficiency in domesticated animals: An evolutionary and comparative overview. International Journal of Paleopathology, 23, 100-109.

 


Featured Image Credit: qimono, Pixabay

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