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Cat with herpesvirus infection and conjunctivitis

The essentials

  • Eye infections are very common in cats — As your kitty wanders and explores, they come into contact with a host of irritants that can lead to infections in the eye.
  • Many eye infections are easily treatable — The most common type of feline eye infection, conjunctivitis, can be treated quickly by your veterinarian.
  • Take your cat to the veterinarian if you suspect an infection — Some eye infections are secondary infections to another condition, so it’s important your vet inspect your cat if you think they have an eye infection.

It’s typically easy to spot when something’s wrong with your cat’s eyes. A kitty’s beautiful peepers are usually one of the first things people notice about them. When a cat parent sees their furry friend’s eyes start to look a little out of the ordinary, it can be (understandably) worrying.

Just like a human’s eyes, feline eye conditions and eye infections can be caused by a number of infectious agents. We’ve broken down the different causes, types, signs, and treatment options to help concerned pet parents who want to help their under-the-weather kitty.

Understanding cat eye infections

A healthy cat’s eyes should look bright and clear of any discharge or redness. Eyes that are red, swollen, or emitting a watery or mucus-like discharge are most likely infected. There are a number of reasons why your cat’s eyes may be infected, and some signs of infection are more serious than others.

However, if you notice any signs of infection, it’s best to bring your cat in to see your veterinarian immediately.

Causes of eye infections in cats

  • Allergies – Cats can have allergic reactions to a number of different irritants, just like humans. Felines can have an allergic reaction to dust or pollen in the air, household products like aerosol spray, cleaning products, or other chemicals and additives in cat litter products.
  • Viral infection – Specific types of viral infections can also lead to a feline eye infection. These include feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) , feline herpesvirus (FHV), and feline calicivirus (FCV). FIV is an incurable disease that weakens a cat’s immune system. This condition leads to them being more susceptible to other illnesses, including eye infections. Although FIV is not an airborne illness, it can be transmitted between cats through bite wounds or saliva. It’s not recommended for an FIV-positive cat to be in a home with other uninfected cats.
  • Bacterial infection – Many different types of bacteria can cause a feline eye infection. Among these are E. coli, Salmonella, Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, and Clostridium. Kittens or older cats with weaker immune systems are particularly prone to bacterial infections. Cats with other illnesses or viral infections, or cats who are exposed to other felines with a bacterial infection, are also at high risk.
  • Conjunctivitis – Also known as pink eye, feline conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the mucous membrane on the outer surface of the eye. It is an extremely common eye infection in cats. Feline conjunctivitis is caused by a number of circumstances, including allergies, bacterial or viral infections, or foreign bodies entering the eye.
  • Feline upper respiratory infections – The idea of a respiratory infection causing eye problems may be confusing, but certain upper respiratory infections in cats can definitely cause eye infections. Because the upper respiratory system affects the sinuses, inflammation and infection can impact your feline’s eyes.
  • Blepharitis – Blepharitis is a common eye infection that particularly affects flat-faced cats, such as Himalayans or Persians. Blepharitis causes inflammation of the eyelids, and may be a secondary infection caused by another infection or inflammatory disorder.
  • Epiphora – Epiphora is a condition that affects a feline’s tear ducts. Per Dr. Bruce Armstrong, DVM, “Epiphora is the actual tearing from the affected or diseased eye and is a clinical sign, not the actual blocking of the tear ducts.”  The underlying cause of epiphora may be allergies, feline conjunctivitis, or blocked tear ducts. The condition causes a cat to have chronic watery, teary eyes. In some cases, a veterinarian may need to use a special instrument to flush out the nasolacrimal duct to relieve the cat’s symptoms. This condition is also commonly treated with anti-inflammatory drugs and topical eye medication.
  • Uveitis – Uveitis is a condition that causes inflammation in one or more of a cat’s internal eye structures. This inflammation can be caused by trauma to the eye, a secondary infection, immunodeficiencies or cancer. Signs of uveitis include watery eyes, light sensitivity, redness in the eyes, and a cloudy or altered appearance to the iris.
  • Keratoconjunctivitis sicca – Also known as dry eye, keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KSC) often accompanies a secondary infection that disrupts the lacrimal glands. It could either be a bacterial secondary infection, viruses, and could even be a secondary condition to allergies. Dry eyes are very uncomfortable for cats, with symptoms including inflammation, light sensitivity, and swollen eyes that your cat may not want to open. Typically a veterinarian will prescribe eye drops and antibiotics if an infection is also present.

Signs of feline eye infections

  • Redness in the whites of the eye
  • Swollen, puffy, or drooping eyes
  • Watery discharge
  • Teary eyes
  • Mucus-like or crusty discharge
  • Squinting or refusing to open their eyes
  • Frequent blinking
  • Rubbing or pawing at eyes constantly
  • Cloudy or opaque corneas
  • Visible third eyelid
  • Changes in shape or color
  • Lethargy and/or loss of appetite
  • Increased vocalization and/or howling from pain

How common are eye infections in cats?

It’s very common for a cat to get an eye infection at least once in their life. Eye infections are often contracted as a secondary illness to something else. For example, keratoconjunctivitis sicca is often a secondary bacterial infection to FVH-1.

Types of cat eye infections

There are several different types of eye infections. Some are viral or bacterial, and others are a result of foreign bodies or other symptoms.

Conjunctivitis in cats

Feline pink eye is an infection which causes inflammation in the pink tissue around the eye, also known as the conjunctiva. Conjunctiva shouldn’t be visible in a healthy cat’s eyes, but feline conjunctivitis will cause redness, puffiness, and irritation in the eye.

Pink eye in cats is easily treated with a visit to the veterinarian. Your vet will give a visual examination of your kitty’s eyes and may run some lab work. Eye drops or ointments are typically prescribed along with antibiotics.

Feline herpesvirus type-1 (FHV-1)

Feline herpesvirus type-1 (or FHV-1) is a very common disease that most cats will be exposed to at some point in their life. Many cats are just carriers and never show symptoms, the virus just lying dormant in their bodies. For those kitties who do show symptoms, it typically arises if a cat is stressed or sick with a secondary illness.

Signs of FHV-1 include conjunctivitis, upper respiratory distress such as coughing, congestion and sneezing, or corneal ulcers (a wound in or on a cat’s eye). While at this time there is no cure for FHV-1, the effects of the disease are manageable and treated with topical ointments, medication and vitamin supplements like Lysine. Signs of FHV-1 can also wax and wane throughout a cat’s life.

Chlamydophila felis

Also called feline chlamydial conjunctivitis , this infection is caused by the Chlamydophila felis bacteria. This infection always affects the eyes of a cat, and typically the nose and throat as well. If untreated, the infection can spread to the lungs and become life threatening. Signs to look out for include nasal and eye discharge, sneezing, and occasionally a mild fever. Oral antibiotics can treat the infection. Because the bacteria is highly contagious, multi-cat homes will need to separate infected cats until a sick kitty clears the illness.


Feline hemotropic mycoplasmosis (FHM), also known as mycoplasma, is an uncommon bacterial infection in cats. A microscopic bacterial parasite infects the feline’s red blood cells and causes anemia and respiratory symptoms. Mycoplasma can also cause infections in dogs, livestock and even humans. Antibiotics are usually prescribed to clear the parasite from the body.

Feline calicivirus

Calicivirus is a very contagious virus that causes both upper respiratory and oral infections in felines. It affects both domestic and wild cats. Signs include nasal congestion, yellow or greenish discharge from the nose or eyes, conjunctivitis, and painful ulcers on the mouth or nose. Topical eye medications are typically prescribed to treat calicivirus. It’s important to bring your cat in to see a veterinarian at the first sign of illness, as untreated calicivirus can be fatal.

Feline upper respiratory infection

URIs or upper respiratory infections are similar to a cold for cats, although untreated they can be much more serious. Signs include runny nose, sneezing, eye discharge, redness, and eye squinting. Some URIs resolve on their own, but it’s always important to bring your cat in for a veterinarian visit to check the severity of the infection. More serious URIs may require antibiotics or topical eye ointment.

Diagnosing eye infections in cats

Your veterinarian will be able to determine exactly which eye infection is ailing your kitty. There are multiple tests a vet uses to determine a correct diagnosis.

Physical examination

Your vet will perform a physical exam that will look at your cat’s outer eyeball, eyelids, and third eyelid. Veterinarians look at the retina, iris, and cornea of a cat’s eye to determine redness and other signs of eye infection. A vet can also spot a growth or ulcer on the outer eye through a physical exam.

Samples and lab tests

Eye infections that may present underlying issues beyond what’s immediately visible may require additional testing. Your veterinarian may order lab work that includes blood or urine tests. These tests can tell a vet if there are any more serious conditions present in your cat aside from what’s visible on their eye.

Culture testing

In some cases, your veterinarian may collect a sample of discharge from the infected eye. The sample will then be cultured in a lab. There, the vet can detect the presence of bacteria, fungi, or parasites present and help determine the best kind of treatment.

Treatment options for cat eye infections

Depending on what type of eye infection your cat has, your veterinarian will prescribe a specific treatment that will best help your kitty get back to being their best self.

Antibiotics for cat eye infections

There are a wide variety of antibiotics a veterinarian may prescribe to your cat based on their specific eye condition. Some of these medications are topical eye drops pet owners insert in the eye. Often an oral antibiotic may also be prescribed for a bacterial infection.

Role of surgery in treating severe cat eye infections

Surgery is typically not required to treat an eye infection in cats. Antibiotics and topical treatments are the primary prescribed treatments for feline eye infections. In severe cases, if an infection has spread to other parts of the body, some kind of procedure may be required on a case by case basis.

Regular vet check-ups

Keeping your cat up to date with their regular veterinarian visits is a great preventative measure to keep your kitty healthy. On top of yearly vaccines, your vet will inspect your cat’s eyes and run blood work to look for any underlying conditions. Regular check ups can alert pet owners to any health concerns that might cause their cat to get sick.

Step-by-step guide to caring for your cat’s eye infection

Once your cat receives their diagnosis, it’s time for you to take the medicine and treat your cat at home. There are some strategies to help best administer medicine and

Step 1: Cleaning your cat’s eyes safely

Cats aren’t always as comfortable as dogs are when it comes to grooming. But if you need to clean your kitty’s eyes, there are methods that will help ensure the best experience for you and your furry friend. Use a veterinarian-approved antimicrobial eye wash to clean your cat’s eyes. You’ll also want to get cotton balls or a gentle cotton swab that won’t irritate your cat’s eyes.

Before you start cleaning, spend some time petting your cat to help keep them calm and get them in a positive mood. Start from the inside corner of the eye and gently wipe outward. Continue until your cat’s eyes are thoroughly cleaned. And be sure to reward your cat with plenty of treats for putting up with this!

Step 2: Administering medication to your cat

Giving a pill to a cat is a bit trickier than giving one to a dog. There are some helpful tricks to make at-home medicine administering easy, however. Pill pockets are a great option to secretly hide a pill inside a treat for your cat. They are available at most pet supply stores and come in a variety of flavors.

For pickier cats, you may need to administer medication manually. To do this, use one hand to make a “C” shape with the index finger and thumb. Use your other hand to open the lower jaw. Place the pill towards the back of the cat’s throat, then close their mouth and encourage them to swallow the pill by gently stroking the throat.

Step 3: Monitor your cat’s progress

After your cat’s diagnosis, keep a close eye on your cat’s progress. Your vet will be able to communicate when you should see improvements in the eye, depending on the type of infection. If the eye worsens after administering medications or treatments, it’s important to bring your cat back into the vet.

Ways to prevent cat eye infections

Cat parents can take some precautionary measures to help keep their feline friend healthy and prevent eye infections from occurring. Keep your kitty up to date on regular vet checks, and make sure they receive their annual vaccinations. Regular scheduled vet visits are one of the best things any pet parent can do to ensure their cat lives a long and healthy life.

If your cat has any dirt or “eye crusties” around the eye area, clean the area gently with a warm, clean, damp towel. Cat owners can also limit the amount of aerosol sprays or chemicals in their household that could be an irritant to a cat’s eyes. If your cat has seasonal allergies, talk to your veterinarian about the best options to help treat symptoms and prevent an eye infection.

Dispelling myths about cat eye infections

Statement True or false?
Cat eye infections are contagious to humans False - Typically, cat eye infections aren’t contagious to humans (zoonotic). But, in multi-cat households, eye infections can move from cat to cat.
Cats can lose their sight from eye infections True - If left untreated, many types of eye infections, including conjunctivitis, can lead to a loss of eyesight.
All cats with eye discharge have an eye infection False - Just like humans, sometimes kitties get something in their eye that causes a little discharge. Monitor your cat’s symptoms: if more signs appear or if the discharge persists more than a day, bring your cat in to see your veterinarian.
Eye infections will go away on their own False - While it is possible that an eye infection may go away on its own, any signs that persist for more than a day should be treated by a veterinarian.

Eye infections in felines are very common, and some of them can cause a lot of discomfort for your cat. Bringing your kitty into the veterinarian to get a diagnosis and treatment plan ASAP, especially if signs don’t clear in a day or two, can help resolve the illness quickly. With proper veterinary and at-home care, your cat can live a long and healthy life with clear, happy peepers.

Frequently asked questions

How do I know if my cat’s eye is infected?

The common signs of an eye infection in cats includes a red, swollen or puffy eye, discharge leaking from the eye, and persistent pawing at the eyes.

What causes eye infection in cats?

Eye infections are caused by a number of factors, including viral or bacterial infections, allergies or foreign bodies.

How can I treat my cat’s eye infection at home?

It is recommended that pet parents who suspect their cat has an eye infection bring their cat into the veterinarian for treatment. At your vet appointment, cat owners can discuss recommended home treatments to soothe irritation in your cat’s eyes.

When should I worry about my cat’s eye infection?

A cat’s eye that appears infected for longer than a day without getting better should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible.

How long can a cat go with an eye infection?

Sometimes an eye infection may resolve on its own in a matter of days to weeks. It is recommended to bring your cat into the vet at the first signs of infection. Some eye infections, like conjunctivitis, are highly contagious and can spread to other cats in a multi-cat household.

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