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Common eye problems in cats

The essentials

  • There are many common problems — Cats suffer from many of the same common eye problems that humans do. Conditions affect cats of all ages and breeds. 
  • Severity can range from minor to fatal — Eye problems in cats can be minor irritations, painful conditions, or even the caveat of fatal disease.
  • Prevention is the best medicine — There are things a cat owner can do to maintain good feline eye health, like regular check ups and practicing safety.

Cats have sensitive eyes that are susceptible to a range of eye problems. Your cat’s eye requires proper care and maintenance to protect against bacterial or viral infections, inflammation, and injury.

Regular eye exams can help detect and address any potential problems. Some eye problems can be treated with eye drops or ointments, while others may require surgery or other medications. In rare cases, eye problems can spread and cause upper respiratory infections that can be fatal. For that reason, it’s important to stay on top of your cat’s eye health.

Anatomy of a cat’s eye

Like many animals, a cat’s eye is similar to the human eye in anatomy and function. 

  • Cornea The cornea is the clear dome covering the front surface of the eye. The cornea protects the eye and refracts light.
  • Lens — The lens sits behind the iris and allows the eye to focus on things at different distances. Small muscles in the lens enable it to change shape to focus light on the retina.
  • Pupil — The pupil is the opening in the middle of the eye which appears perfectly round, small, and black. Pupils change size to adjust to the amount of light.
  • Iris — The iris is the colored part of the eye that filters light by enlarging the pupil or making it smaller.
  • Retina — The retina lines the back of the eye and contains photoreceptors called cones and rods. Cats have more rod cells than humans, giving better night vision.
  • Third eyelid — The third eyelid is a hidden lid in the innermost corner of the eye that gives moisture and protection. Certain conditions may cause the eyelid to protrude.
Cat eye diagram

Source: Merck Vet

Common eye problems in cats

Eye problems in cats are a lot like human eye problems. Good hygiene and grooming, as well as minimizing exposure to infected animals can help protect your cat. Regular veterinary checkups are important for detecting eye problems early. Regular eye examinations are also important for detecting any underlying health issues, such as diabetes or feline leukemia virus that may be causing eye problems or recurring infections.

Conjunctivitis in cats

The conjunctiva is a term for the pale tissue surrounding a cat’s eye and the inner surface of the eyelids (both the hood of the eye and the third eyelid located in the eye’s inner corner). Conjunctivitis, more commonly known as pink eye, often occurs when those moist tissues have an inflammatory response to bacteria or viruses, usually caused by environmental allergies to certain plants, dust, or chemicals. Conjunctivitis can occur in one or both eyes and affects cats of any age or breed, although it’s more common in young cats. 

Symptoms of conjunctivitis can include red conjunctiva, excessive tearing, discharge, swelling, and squinting. Appropriate treatment for conjunctivitis usually involves eye drops or ointments to help reduce inflammation. In some cases, antibiotics may also be prescribed to help treat the underlying cause.

Cataracts in cats

Cataracts occur when the clear lens inside the eye is no longer able to focus incoming light downward. The results are vision changes as well as a milky or cloudy appearance. Cataracts can be small and subtle, or cover the majority of the eye and can even lead to blindness. The condition is mostly found in older cats who have lens degeneration, and it can affect one or both eyes. 

The easiest way to spot a cataract is by its clouded appearance. Cat owners should also look for signs like bumping into things, reluctance to move around, or inability to find their bed or food. These may be early signs of cataracts, which can require surgery.

Glaucoma in cats

Glaucoma occurs when there’s an increase in fluid in the eye because of inadequate drainage. Naturally occurring fluid in the eye provides moisture and structure. But when the balance of fluid is disrupted by blocked drainage, the result is high pressure and damage. 

Secondary glaucoma is most common in cats, meaning the glaucoma is a result of an underlying condition. Lens luxation, tissue overgrowth, and even cancer cells can block fluid from draining. 

Look for signs of illness like sudden blindness, redness or cloudiness, squinting, tearing, bulging eyes, or pupils that are not equal in size. Glaucoma is painful, so your feline friend will likely show signs of pain like excessive sleeping, avoidance, or irritation.

Corneal ulcers in cats

The cornea is the clear protective layer of the eye. Corneal ulcers occur when the cornea is damaged by a scratch, tear, or hole and can also be called corneal abrasions. The most common cause is because of something getting in the eye and damaging it. Corneal ulcers affect vision can cause light sensitivity, and are usually painful.  

If you notice your cat squinting, pawing or rubbing their eye, contact your veterinarian. Squinting can also be a sign of feline calicivirus , so it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis.

Treatment for corneal ulcers usually involves eye drops, antibiotics, and pain relief medications. In some cases, surgery may be necessary. If left untreated, corneal ulcers can lead to blindness.

Keratitis in cats

Keratitis is an inflammation of the cornea, the underside of the eyelid, and the conjunctiva. Vets aren’t sure what the cause is, but keratitis can affect any cat. It’s more commonly seen in cats over four years old and seems to be more probable in neutered males and those with feline herpesvirus. 

Keratitis typically starts in the inner eyelid. Over time, gray or white lesions form and can eventually cover the eye. The lesions can be textured and cause irritation when blinking, leading to pain and sensitivity. The condition is usually treated with steroids and, in some cases, an antibiotic is also needed.

Uveitis in cats

The uvea is the middle layer of tissue in the eye and is comprised of three parts: the iris, the ciliary body, and the choroid. Uveitis occurs when any of these three parts becomes inflamed. Inflammation leading to the condition can be a result of high blood pressure, tumors, trauma, bacterial infection, or a host of other things. At times, the cause of uveitis is undetermined. 

Depending on the affected area and severity, symptoms can differ. Usually, uveitis will result in an intensely red color, pain (look for pawing at their eye, shaking their head, or avoiding contact), watery discharge, bleeding, or pus. In severe cases, uveitis can lead to retinal detachment.

Entropion in cats

Entropion is an eye abnormality when the eyelid turns in so that the lashes rub against the cornea. It’s more common in Persian cats and other breeds with similar head shapes (shortened and flattened). 

Rolling in of the eyelashes is uncomfortable and irritates the surface of the eye as well as the conjunctiva. Long-term entropion can cause scarring, sores or ulcers, discoloration, or even blindness. Entropion can affect one or both eyes and can be very obvious or hard to detect, depending on the case. When caught early, entropion can be reversed by turning the lids back with stitches or injections. Once entropion has set in, surgery may be required. 

Signs of entropion include a sunken appearance in the eye, squinting, discharge, hazy appearance, tearing, and signs that your cat is in pain like pawing at the eye.

How to protect your cat's eyes

Keeping an eye (see what we did there?) on your cat’s eye health is the best way to prevent future problems.

One of the best ways to protect your cat’s eye health is with regular check-ups. Make sure your cat sees the veterinarian at least once a year as a preventative measure. An annual eye exam can go a long way in early intervention. If at any point you notice a change in your cat’s eyes or signs of vision changes, call your veterinarian to discuss what you’re seeing. 

Apart from regular vet visits, there are a few things cat parents can do to provide a safe environment and prevent eye problems at home. 

  • Stay up to date on vaccinations
  • Avoid overcrowding cats 
  • Avoid exposure to contagious conditions, like conjunctivitis
  • Keep the eye area clean
  • Regularly check the eyes for changes
  • Avoid sharp edges on toys or treats
  • Complete all treatments from your veterinarian

When to consult a vet

When it comes to eye problems in cats, the best rule of thumb is “better safe than sorry.” Because eye problems in cats have such a wide range in severity and underlying causes, it’s a good idea to involve a professional. 

Undiagnosed diabetes or feline immunodeficiency virus  , for example, can cause eye problems. Some conditions can be transferred to other animals, and others can worsen to the point of being life threatening. It’s best not to assume the problem will resolve on its own. A quick call to the vet can make a difference in your cat’s health. 

Anytime you notice cat eye discharge, a suddenly cloudy eye, redness, irritation, or any signs of pain, it’s time to consult your vet.

Frequently asked questions

Why does my kitten have cloudy eyes with no discharge?

While cataracts are unlikely in younger cats, other eye conditions like kerititis, glaucoma, and corneal abrasions can cause cloudy eyes, even in kittens. 

What is the treatment for cloudy eyes in cats?

The specific treatment depends on the cause. While cataract surgery is common, other conditions that cause cloudy eyes in cats, like uveitis or glaucoma, may require topical treatments, eye drops, or antibiotics. 

Can cat eye infections use treatment over the counter?

While there are some eye wipes and eye drops for cats available over the counter, they can be ineffective. It’s best to talk with your vet to determine the underlying cause and make a treatment plan before buying something over the counter.

Can kidney disease cause cat eye problems?

Yes. Kidney disease can result in high blood pressure, causing blindness for some cats. Early diagnosis and management is important to prevent loss of vision.

Are multi-cat homes more prone to eye problems?

Multi-cat homes can be more susceptible to diseases in general like feline infectious peritonitis or feline herpesvirus (which can lead to eye problems like keratoconjunctivitis sicca). There’s also increased chance with fighting between cats, leading to scratched eyes in some cases. Generally, contagious eye problems like pink-eye are more likely to spread in multi-cat homes.