Is it an eye infection, or something else? From discharge to pink eye, understanding the signs and symptoms of these common eye problems in cats is key to knowing how to treat the issue.

By Brendan Howard
August 24, 2020
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There’s nothing quite like the eyes of your cat. Whether your furry friend sports the captivating clear blue of a Siamese, or the brilliant green of a Russian blue, seeing those captivating colors dart along after their prey—even if it’s just their toy they’re stalking!—are mesmerizing. From their vertical pupils to the fascinating third eyelid that slides across like a curtain (called the nictitating membrane), and even the magic of cats with two different colored eyes (known as heterochromia iridis)—cat’s eyes are easily one of their most distinctive features.

That's why it can be particularly worrisome as a cat owner to see your favorite feline's eyes change from crystal-clear. Cloudy eyes, or eyes that become watery or show discharge, and even an increase in blinking or squinting can mean your cat could have an eye infection—or something worse. 

"It's wise to seek veterinary advice with any new discharge from the eyes, regardless of what it looks like or if the cat is acting painful," says veterinary ophthalmologist Mark Bobofchak, DVM, DACVO, with Eye Care for Animals. "Cats are very good at hiding discomfort and will often act normally even with serious eye conditions."

Keep your own eyes peeled for trouble in your cat’s eyes, and learn to recognize common conditions that may cause infections, discharge, pain, and damage so you can get your cat treated quickly and effectively with help from your vet. Here's a rundown of six common cat eye problems and what to do if your cat is exhibiting symptoms.

Conjunctivitis (Otherwise Known as "Pink Eye") 

"Pink eye" or conjunctivitis in cats (and people) is an inflammation or infection of the outer layer of the eye or the inner surface of the eyelids. The eye appears red and swollen, with a discharge of a variety of colors. In most cases, cats cannot get eye infections from humans, or vice versa. But some causes of eye infections can be spread from cat to cat.

An eye exam by a veterinarian is crucial for diagnosing the condition properly. Your vet may prescribe antibiotics for your cat’s eye infection, and other eye drops or ointment for inflammations. Veterinarians do recommend that if conjunctivitis shows up again, you don't reuse old eye drops or other medicine.

"Simple artificial tears that can be obtained from any pharmacy will almost never cause harm," says Bobofchak. "However, sometimes the delay in seeking veterinary advice because of wanting to treat at home for a few days can result in a mild condition having time to progress to a more serious one."

Causes can include upper respiratory infections; fungal, viral or bacteria; infections; environmental irritants like cleaners and other household chemicals; or even just a physical injury to the eye.

Blepharitis: Irritated Eyelids

The technical name for “inflammation of a cat's eyelids,” blepharitis is most commonly caused by entropion—when an eyelid folds inward and rubs against the eye. Some cats can be especially prone to this condition, in particular kinds who have flat faces and more prominent folds of skin (think: Persian or Himalayan breeds). Other common causes that your veterinarian would need to diagnose can include infections, abnormalities from birth, allergic reactions, tumors affecting the eye, and inflammatory disorders. According to VCA Animal Hospitals, treatment for blepharitis in cats can range from warm compresses and eye drops, all the way to immunosuppressant drugs or even surgery. Your cat’s prognosis all depends on what’s causing the irritation of the eyelid, but it usually becomes manageable once the underlying condition is treated.

Cat Cataracts: When Older Cats' Vision is Clouded

Just like people, cats can get cataracts, although it's rare and usually seen in geriatric felines. The lens in the cat's eye becomes cloudy and light has trouble getting in, impairing vision and sometimes causing blindness. 

Veterinarians can diagnose the underlying problems that might be causing the damage and may be able to slow or stop worsening of the existing cataracts. Many cases are caused by eye inflammation or injury to the eye, but sometimes cats—just like people—are genetically predisposed to the condition. In some cases, cataracts can be removed with surgery.

Glaucoma: When Eye Pressure is Too High

A healthy eye moves fluid (known as aqueous humor) in and out from behind the lens of the eye. If that fluid is blocked up, the increased pressure can cause damage to the cat's eye, which can affect the cat’s vision and cause discomfort. According to the Cornell Feline Health Center at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, most cases of glaucoma in cats can be caused by inflammation or infection of the eye’s drainage ducts, which allows pressure to build up in the affected eye. But in other cases, the cause of glaucoma can include inflammation, dislocation of the lens, a tumor, or damage to the eye.

Signs of glaucoma might include an enlarged eye, a cloudy cornea (the see-through front part of the eye), redness in the eye, a dilated pupil that doesn't react properly to light, squinting, pain in the eye, or excessive tears. 

Because glaucoma can lead to blindness, it’s important to call your vet as soon as you suspect an issue. Your veterinarian will work to treat and manage underlying medical issues, like inflammation of parts of the eye (known as uveitis). However, if glaucoma cannot be controlled, your vet may recommend surgery or even complete removal of the eye to alleviate pain associated with the condition.

Keratitis: When the Cornea is Inflamed

As with most eye conditions, this inflammation of the see-through cornea that covers the iris and the pupil can be painful and cause blindness if the underlying cause is left untreated. Testing can help a veterinarian uncover the bacteria or virus at work and prescribe a pain-relieving and illness-fighting treatment plan. Especially with viruses, treatment can take time, and the condition could return, so it’s possible your veterinarian may recommend adjustments along the way.

Corneal Ulceration: Direct, Frontal Damage 

Signs of a corneal ulcer in your cat—a scratch or tear in the see-through front part of the eye (ouch!)—may show signs similar to other eye conditions. The eye may be red with discharge and there may be swelling near the ulcer. The cat may hold the eye closed or be sensitive to light. Veterinarians can do tests to identify the damage, and because corneal ulceration could be caused by injury, infections, or an inner eye disease, treatment will differ depending on the root cause. 

For corneal ulcers that are more mild in nature, your cat may respond well to treatment for underlying conditions that require antibiotic drops and/or pain relief for the cat. But deeper ulcers may require surgery and can develop scar tissue (called a corneal sequestrum) and possibly burst if treatment is not administered properly by a vet.