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Pink Eyes in Cats: Is It Conjunctivitis?

If you notice that your cat's eyes look red, swollen, or watery, you will understandably be concerned. This is especially true if your cat appears under the weather or has been rubbing at its eyes. Conjunctivitis in cats is the most common feline eye disorder to affect your pet. This article explores conjunctivitis in cats, the symptoms, causes, and the best treatment options. Feline eye health doesn't have to be complicated; the diagnosis and treatment plan for most cats will be straightforward.

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What is conjunctivitis in cats?

Conditions ending in '-itis' refer to an inflammation. Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the lining of the eye, which includes the mucous membranes that coat both the inner and outer surfaces. The lining of the eyeball and the eyelids will both be affected.

conjunctivitis in cats

There is a wide range of potential causes for cat conjunctivitis, including:

  • Infections with bacteria or viruses such as feline herpesvirus, feline calicivirus, Chlaymdophila, and Mycoplasma. Infections are the most frequent cause of feline conjunctivitis, and an upper respiratory infection in cats is often accompanied by conjunctivitis.
  • Allergic disease. Some of the more common allergen triggers would include grass, pollen and house dust mites.
  • Irritants within the air, such as cooking fumes, essential oils, perfumes or dust.
  • Genetic disorders such as rolled in eyelids (entropion).
  • Dry eyes. Keratoconjunctivitis sicca is more common in dogs but occurs infrequently in cats. Eyes lacking lubrication are much more prone to infection.
  • Eyelid and eye tumors.
  • Parasites such as Thelazia eye worms.

Pink eyes: differentiating conjunctivitis from other causes

Notably, red or pink eyes in cats are not always caused by conjunctivitis. Other considerations include injuries such as an eye ulcer, glaucoma (high blood pressure within the eye), or keratitis, an inflammatory cornea disease. Keep in mind that many cats will have conjunctivitis with another eye issue.

It is sensible to see a veterinarian for cats with signs of conjunctivitis. This is not only so you can ensure the diagnosis is correct but also so their eyes can be examined in person and receive the correct treatment.

Your vet will examine your cat and its eyes. They may flush the eyes to remove debris, perform a Schirmer tear test to measure tear production and perform Fluorescein staining to check for ulcers. Less commonly, your cat's eye pressure would be measured.

Symptoms of conjunctivitis in cats

As the cat's conjunctiva become inflamed, you will notice a range of symptoms. Signs can affect one or both eyes, typically come on rapidly and can include:

Symptoms of conjunctivitis in cats
  • Redness and swelling of the conjunctiva
  • Excessive tearing or watering of the eyes (cat eye discharge can quickly harden and become 'gunky' if not wiped away). Watery eyes in cats may be a common issue, but it is never normal.
  • Blinking more, keeping eyes closed, or squinting. Cats can squint in response to bright sunlight, but this should only be a temporary change that stops once the cat looks away from the sun.
  • Discharge that can be a variety of colors including yellow, green, red, or brown.
  • Rubbing its face on the ground and pawing at its eyes often shows evidence of cat eye discharge on its paws, as it has been grooming by rubbing at its eyes.
  • The third eyelids (nictitans membrane) become visible. Many owners describe this as it looking like their cat's eyes have "rolled back in their head."

Severity matters: when to be concerned

In general, conjunctivitis in cats is not an emergency. Still, it is something you will want to address urgently. Delaying treatment can result in ongoing pain and discomfort and can worsen any ulcers or infections that are present.

If a cat eye infection or ulcer is not treated promptly, this can lead to permanent scarring, cloudiness and even vision loss.

It would be recommended you have your cat cat seen on the same day if they have signs such as: fever, lethargy, a reduced appetite, or eye cloudiness.

Treating conjunctivitis in cats: what to expect

The treatment your cat receives will depend on what has caused their conjunctivitis, how severe it is and if they have any underlying medical issues.

Some of the more common treatment options include lubrication, anti-inflammatory drops, and antibiotic eye drops. Less commonly, your cat may be issued antiviral medicine or allergy medicine.

You may wonder if pet insurance covers a vet visit for cat conjunctivitis. Most policies should cover the cost. If unsure, check your policy's coverage or contact your insurer.

Home care tips for comfort

Many cats are dispensed with an Elizabethan collar to ensure they cannot cause further damage to their eyes by rubbing them. While your cat may not be a fan, keep this on around the clock.

You can also gently bathe the eyes with cotton balls and warm water, removing any crusting and discharge as needed. Remember to use a separate cotton ball for each eye so any infection does not spread.

While you may be tempted, do not use any over the counter drops unless specifically advised to do so by your vet.

Preventing future flare-ups

We cannot always prevent feline conjunctivitis, but there are certain things that make sense to do.

Keep your kitty's home clean and hygienic, paying particularly attention to regular litter tray cleaning and washing bedding as needed.

Your cat should be up to date with their parasite prevention. Flea allergic dermatitis, for example, can lead to intense itching and secondary conjunctivitis.

Ensure your cat is up to date with their vaccinations, and only use reputable boarding facilities that request to see proof of vaccination.

Conjunctivitis in cats can cause red and watery eyes, and your cat may feel discomfort. Seek veterinary care quickly so your pet can be examined and the cause of their signs can be determined. Medication will take effect for most cats within a matter of days, and the conjunctival swelling should be short-lived. Get into the habit of looking at your cat's eyes closely daily so any issues can be detected early.

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