By Kate Hughes
As with most feline ailments, recognizing when there is a problem is the first step in diagnosing and treating eye infections in cats. But, since many kitties can be very private—even more so when they’re not feeling well—having an idea of what could go wrong and how to fix it can be very helpful. Here are some tips that pet parents can use to keep their cats’ eyes bright and healthy.
The first thing you should do when it comes to your kitty’s ocular health is to familiarize yourself with your cat’s eyes. What color are they? What does the third eyelid look like? Having a baseline is very important so that you can notice when something is off—even if it’s minor. “This could be anything from a little bit of sleep in the eye to some pinkness in the third eyelid,” says Dr. Andrea Jones, a veterinarian at the New Jersey-based Princeton Animal Hospital & Carnegie Cat Clinic.
Once you know what your cat’s “normal” is, you’re better able to identify signs of infection. These can include everything from redness and drainage to squinting and rubbing.
However, it’s important that you don’t try to diagnose these symptoms on your own. “Signs of an eye issue are very non-specific,” explains Dr. Elaine Holt, clinical associate professor of ophthalmology at the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine. “They have a wide variety of causes, including infection and diseases within the eye. And, until you know what is causing those very non-specific signs, you don’t know the proper method of treatment.”
Both Holt and Jones stress that if you notice something is wrong with your cat’s eyes, you should schedule a vet appointment immediately. “You don’t have to necessarily make it an emergency, but you should try to get the cat to the vet that day,” Jones says.
Many of the cats brought to vets for red eyes and other ocular symptoms are exhibiting some form of conjunctivitis, which is characterized by inflammation of the mucous membrane that covers the inside of the eyelid and parts of the eye (the conjunctiva). There can be many causes of conjunctivitis, including bacterial infections, viral infections, and trauma.
Holt warns that the causes behind these infections may not necessarily be one-offs, as some turn out to be chronic problems. “One of the most common infectious organisms behind conjunctivitis is feline herpes virus, which is recurring,” she says. “So you might have to treat the eye many times over the course of several months or even years. Herpes virus is actually a big player in ocular surface disease in cats, too.” Trauma is also a possibility. If your cat’s eye gets scratched by a branch or she gets clawed by another cat, the damaged eye can then become infected and requires treatment. Trauma and some types of infections (e.g. feline herpes virus) may also lead to ulcers, an erosion of tissue off the surface of the eye.
Another reason pet owners shouldn’t try to diagnose their cat’s eye infections without professional assistance is because the drainage, redness, and squinting might not necessarily be caused by an infection. “Some cats develop dry eye disease as they get older. And there are different types of cancers that can develop in the eye,” Jones says. “This is why it’s so important that you know what the structures of your cat’s eyes look like, so if there is a change, you will know.
Because the symptoms of eye infections are so nonspecific, vets use a myriad of tools to get to the bottom of the problem. “First, I’ll look at which parts of the eye are red. It could just be an eyelid issue, rather than a problem with the globe of the eye,” Jones describes. “If it is the eye itself, I’ll put a stain in the eye to look for scratches or ulcers. For cases that are more difficult to diagnose, I may use an ophthalmoscope—a hand-held eye scope that allows me to look at the retina and the chambers of the eye for symptoms like inflammatory fluid.”
Treatments for eye infections can range from topical—think drops and ointments—to oral antibiotics and ocular surgery.
If your cat is diagnosed with an eye condition that requires oral medications or topical drops or ointments, the vet will teach you how to administer treatment as safely and as painlessly as possible. However, whether this will be an easy task very much depends on your cat.
If the infection is caused by a scratch or an ulcer, vets will typically treat it topically with drops and orally with pain medication. “However, if the eye doesn’t improve, we may have to do procedures to help stimulate healing,” Jones says.
If kitty isn’t particularly amenable to having medication administered, it may not be worthwhile to continue with that treatment. Holt says that stress can exacerbate eye issues, even if the cat is receiving treatment. “Giving medication can be very stressful and could make the disease worse, especially with viral infections like herpes,” she explains. “You really have to work out what your relationship is with your cat. Is the battle worth the end result? Especially if the condition is chronic and you could be doing this for months or years.” If you find yourself in this situation, talk to your veterinarian about different treatment options.
Both Jones and Holt stress that using medication meant for people or other pets is not a good idea when treating cat eye infections. “Do not use any over-the-counter eye drops for your cat, unless it’s artificial tears,” Jones says. “Anything medicated can have a negative effect.”
Holt adds that eye drops for dogs should also be avoided. “Some pet owners think that dogs’ eyes are similar to cats’ eyes, but that is really not the case. Quite often, dog eye medication can be harmful to cats,” she explains. This is because many dog eye medications contain both antibiotics and steroids, and according to Holt, steroids should only be administered to cat eyes with great caution.
Read more: 7 Common Eye Problems in Cats