Nearly every cat has pink eye at some point in life. Learn what symptoms are red flags of this common condition.

By Kristi Valentini
August 24, 2020
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Most people have heard of pink eye, but not when it comes to their pets. Conjunctivitis (pink eye’s official name) is actually very common in cats—most of them get the irritating eye condition at least once in their lives. Learn how to spot the signs and what you can do to quickly get rid of pink eye in cats. 

How Conjunctivitis Affects Cats

Conjunctivitis is inflammation of the eye surface and inner part of the eyelid. A number of things can lead to eye irritation and swelling, but the most common are viral and bacterial infections. According to Kelsey Nannig, DVM, a veterinarian at VCA City Cats Hospital in Arlington, Mass. it is possible for cats with this type of conjunctivitis to spread the infection to other cats, birds, guinea pigs, and sheep.

Other causes of cat conjunctivitis include:

  • Allergies
  • Chemicals
  • Dust
  • Injury

Signs Your Cat May Have Conjunctivitis 

Conjunctivitis can affect one or both eyes. An infection is often to blame if symptoms are in both eyes at the same time or start in one eye and then spread to the other.

One of the most common signs of cat conjunctivitis is eye discharge. It can range from clear and watery to yellow-green to thick and brown, Nanning says. Other symptoms include:

  • Eye redness
  • Squinting
  • Excessive blinking
  • Swelling of eyelids and the inner corner of the eyes
  • Pawing at or rubbing eyes against furniture
  • Sniffles and a runny nose

Any cat can develop conjunctivitis, but kittens are more susceptible. Eye infections frequently cause conjunctivitis in kittens, who haven’t yet developed an immunity to the germs that cause them. Not to mention, kittens are super curious and more accident-prone. They have a higher risk of eye injury.

Older cats are vulnerable to infection if they have diseases that weaken their immune system such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) or feline leukemia virus (FeLV). Cats in group settings like boarding or breeding facilities are also more likely to catch an infection from other sick cats. 

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When Your Cat Should See the Vet

“Mild cases of conjunctivitis may sometimes resolve on their own,” Nannig says. “But eye infections typically require treatment and can quickly progress to a serious eye problem.” 

If your cat is displaying any signs of eye irritation, see a veterinarian. Early treatment almost always solves the problem. However, untreated conjunctivitis in cats may lead to permanent eye damage, including blindness. 

Treating Conjunctivitis in Cats

Veterinarians typically treat conjunctivitis with medicated or lubricating eye drops, Nannig says. Medications that treat conjunctivitis include:

  • Anti-inflammatory drugs: These medications reduce swelling and irritation in the eye.
  • Lubricating drops: Eye drops formulated to increase eye wetness help flush out harmful substances and make your kitty more comfortable.
  • Antibiotics: These drugs kill bacteria. You can apply them directly to the eye in drops or ointment, or your vet may recommend an oral antibiotic.
  • Antiviral drugs: Your cat may need this type of medication if there’s a severe or persistent viral infection. 

If the cause of your cat’s conjunctivitis is allergies or airborne irritants, it’s important to eliminate those substances in your home. Otherwise, your cat will continue to suffer conjunctivitis symptoms. 

Treatment for Cat Eye Infections

Oftentimes, viral eye infections pave the way for a bacterial infection to take root. There’s a good chance your kitty may be dealing with a double eye infection. If that’s the case, expect to apply antiviral and antibiotic eye drops for several days or weeks.

After starting treatment, your cat’s eyes may look better within a few days. But it’s crucial to continue treatment as outlined by your vet. The infection can return if you stop treatment too soon. It could also make a future infection more difficult to treat. Expect conjunctivitis infections to go away within one or two weeks of treatment.

Just don’t be surprised if your cat gets another infection in the future. Herpesvirus is one of the most common causes of cat conjunctivitis. While treatment helps your kitty’s eyes heal, the virus stays in your cat’s body. It may pop out again during times of stress or when your cat’s immune system is weaker—similar to how cold sores come and go in people.

As a preventive, your vet may prescribe a probiotic or lysine supplement, which boosts your cat’s immune system, Nannig says. 

Can Humans Get Conjunctivitis from Cats?

“Some causes of conjunctivitis, like viral or bacterial infections, have the potential to spread to humans,” Nanning says. “But it’s uncommon. The risk is greater though with children, the elderly, and those with a weakened immune system.” To be safe, keep your hands away from your eyes after touching your kitty. Even better? Wash them.

Even though humans are unlikely to get conjunctivitis from cats, your other pets can catch it. Keep your infected kitty separate from other pets for a few days after beginning treatment. Also, wash your hands and any other items that your cat comes into contact with (think: furniture, toys, your clothing, bedding). 

If you notice anything unusual going on with your cat’s eyes, make an appointment with your vet. Swift treatment can keep your kitty’s vision sharp. And if conjunctivitis keeps flaring up, your vet can recommend a veterinary ophthalmologist. This eye specialist can get to the bottom of what’s bothering your cat’s peepers.