By Dr. Jessica Vogelsang, DVM
Getting a wink from a cheerful friend is one thing, but getting a wink from your feline is another. Unusual blinking, rubbing of the eyes or discharge can be the signs of an eye infection. Eye problems due to an infectious agent such as a bacteria or virus are fairly common in cats, so be on the lookout for these clinical signs.
Causes of Eye Infections In Cats
While many disease processes can affect the eyes of cats, infectious agents are one of the most common causes of eye disease in the feline. Any feline who is in close contact with other cats is at risk of exposure, since these infectious agents can be difficult to control in crowded environments.
In younger cats, both bacteria and viruses can cause eye infections. Chlamydia and Mycoplasma are the two commonly diagnosed bacteria. Feline herpesvirus type 1 is often the viral culprit, but other viruses such as calicivirus can also play a role in eye infections. These infections are most often seen in young cats with weaker immune systems and those exposed to high-stress environments such as shelters, though any cat may be affected.
In older cats and those in stable environments, the sudden onset of an eye infection may indicate that it has arisen secondary to another problem. Trauma to the eye, autoimmune disease, cancer and systemic viral infections such as feline leukemia (FeLV) and feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) may be underlying contributors.
Symptoms of Cat Eye Infections
Cat parents may notice a variety of symptoms indicating an eye infection, including:
- The whites of the eye may turn red.
- Ocular discharge may be present, running the gamut from clear, to yellow or even green. Winking or rubbing the eyes is also common.
- The third eyelid may be protruding and covering part of the irritated eye.
- Your cat may have other clinical signs common with upper respiratory infections, such as sneezing or nasal discharge.
These symptoms may affect one or both eyes. It is common for a cat to only show one of the above symptoms, particularly early on in the course of the infection.
Diagnosis of Cat Eye Infections
A visit with the veterinarian is key to an accurate diagnosis. A good history helps direct the veterinarian to the diagnostic tests most appropriate for your cat. The examination will evaluate the eye for signs of trauma, look for systemic signs of an upper respiratory infection, and evaluate all the structures of the eye.
The veterinarian may take a small swab or scrape cells from the inflamed areas to look for infectious agents. If a secondary systemic problem is suspected, the veterinarian may recommend additional testing or bloodwork to make sure there is not a larger problem that needs to be addressed.
Prognosis for Cat Eye Infections
The prognosis for uncomplicated infections is excellent. Bacterial infections usually respond well to appropriate treatment, and viral infections are often self-limiting.
If the infection is secondary to another problem, such as FIV, neoplasia or anatomic defect, the long term prognosis depends on the severity of the disease. Even in these cases, the eye infection can be managed separately and treated.
Treatment for Cat Eye Infections
Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics, usually in the form of a topical ointment or drops. Oral treatment is not usually indicated.
While viral eye infections are usually self-limiting, many veterinarians still recommend topical antibiotics as it is common for these felines to have both viral and bacterial infections occurring concurrently. Severe cases may warrant the use of anti-viral medications.
It’s important to remember that many eye problems look alike in cats and a physical examination from the veterinarian is vital to get an accurate diagnosis. While eye infections are common in the cat, other diseases such as glaucoma, foreign bodies or anatomic defects may look similar to the untrained eye. If your cat is showing any signs of discomfort, don’t treat him or her with leftover antibiotics from another feline before calling the vet: you may be wasting precious time missing the right diagnosis.