Is it eye boogers or does your dog have an eye infection? Know the symptoms and treatments of common dog eye issues, plus steps to keep your pup’s eyes healthy.

By Katie Boyce
August 24, 2020
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It’s hard to resist those big, expressive puppy eyes. But when tears or redness in your dog’s eyes makes you worry, Kristina Vygantas, DVM at NorthStar VETS and diplomate, American College of Veterinary Ophthalmologists, has expert tips for what to do. When you understand dog eye infection causes and symptoms, you’ll know how to help your precious pet. Plus, Vygantas shares how to treat dog eye infections and how to prevent eye infections in dogs in the first place.

Eye Infection Causes in Dogs

Dog eye infections have a wide range of causes. Although most human eye infections are caused by exposure to a virus or bacteria, dog eye infections are a bit more complicated. “In dogs, primary eye infections are not nearly as common as in cats and in people,” Vygantas says. “In dogs, ocular discharge and irritation are more commonly associated with other underlying conditions such as allergies, dry eye, and structural eyelid abnormalities, leading to a secondary bacterial infection of the eye.” This means many dog eye infections aren’t contagious.

  • Allergies
  • Birth defects and tear duct issues
  • Injuries
  • Dry eye
  • Foreign matter in the eye
  • Canine distemper
  • Tumors

These irritants and conditions can lead to conjunctivitis, an eye condition caused by inflammation of the lining of the eye. Less commonly, dogs can contract pink eye, the contagious form of conjunctivitis caused by a primary bacterial or viral infection. 

To be on the safe side, if your dog shows signs of an eye infection, assume it’s contagious and keep him away from other pups to avoid spreading the infection. Avoid shared food and water dishes, and wash dog bedding regularly with hot water.

No matter the root cause, conjunctivitis is not only uncomfortable for your pup, but also can permanently damage his eyesight if left untreated. That’s why it’s important to know common dog eye infection symptoms and seek professional care if you suspect your dog has an eye infection.

Signs Your Dog Has an Eye Infection

The most obvious symptom of a dog eye infection is excess eye discharge. But not all dog eye discharge is the same. Check this list to see if it’s likely allergies or something more serious:

  • Goop or Crust in the Corner of the Eye: Most dogs (and humans) get eye boogers at some point. Dried tears, mucus, dust, dead skin cells, and other irritants mat the eyes. This is normal and typically not a cause for concern unless it becomes excessive. That doesn’t mean it’s great to look at. To clean dog eye boogers safely, simply use a warm, damp cloth to soften and gently wipe away any goop or crust from the surrounding fur.
  • Watery Eyes: As in humans, watery eyes can stem from dust, allergies, and other benign irritants and likely return to normal in a day or two. If the problem worsens, changes, or your pup seems miserable, make an appointment with your veterinarian to rule out something more serious.
  • Reddish-Brown Fur Discoloration Around Eyes: The appearance of dog eyes with brown discharge might seem alarming, but this staining near the inner eye is usually normal. Canine tears contain a pigment that can stain light-colored fur. If there’s no other sign of discomfort or infection, it’s probably normal.
  • White or Gray Mucus: Light-colored mucus is typically a sign that your dog’s eyes aren’t producing tears the way they should. In response, his eyes overproduce mucus to keep the eyes hydrated, but it’s not enough to prevent irritation. Schedule a visit with your vet to diagnose the issue. She’ll likely prescribe dog eye drops or artificial tears to keep your dog’s eyes moist and healthy and prevent further complications.
  • Yellow or Green Discharge: If your dog has yellow or green eye discharge, it’s likely an eye infection, especially if the eyes are also red or swollen. Eye infections can cause serious complications if left untreated, so seek veterinary care right away.

Certain breeds are more prone to eye conditions that lead to infection. For example, breeds with drooping skin like shar-peis, bulldogs, and mastiffs can develop eyelid problems that cause irritation. Breeds with shortened snouts and bulging eyes, like shih tzus, pugs, and bulldogs are prone to corneal issues. Still, eye infections can affect all breeds and dogs of all ages, so keep a lookout for symptoms and schedule an appointment with your vet if you notice anything unusual or if your pup doesn’t seem her normal, happy self.

When It’s Time to Call the Vet

If your pup is rubbing or scratching at her eyes, or if they appear red, painful, or swollen, it’s worth a trip to the vet to assess the situation. “The first step is seeing your veterinarian and pursuing referral to a veterinary ophthalmologist if the doctor deems it appropriate,” Vygantas says. 

Because of the range of underlying causes, it’s important to get a correct diagnosis and determine the most efficient treatment plan. “A thorough eye exam, including measurement of tear production, intraocular pressure, and checking for possible corneal abrasions, usually determines the cause of chronic discharge,” Vygantas says. “Targeted therapy toward the underlying cause of the eye irritation is essential in managing and reducing the discharge.”

Treating Eye Infections in Dogs

Because there is a range of causes of dog eye infections, there’s a range of treatment options as well. The most common treatment is antibiotics for dog eye infection. If a dog eye infection is not responding to antibiotics, let your vet know. Nonbacterial eye infections might warrant ointments or eyewashes to soothe and heal your dog’s eyes.

Will a dog eye infection go away on its own? Not likely, Vygantas says. A quick internet search will turn up various natural remedies such as apple cider vinegar and green tea for dog eye infections, but Vygantas doesn’t recommend this approach. “Only the most minor cases of conjunctivitis will resolve with over-the-counter or at-home remedies,” she says. 

While it’s tempting to skip the vet’s office and try out a solution of apple cider vinegar for dog eye infections, keep in mind that an eye infection is a potentially serious issue and almost always requires professional treatment to protect your dog’s vision.

How to Keep Your Dog’s Eyes Healthy

Your dog’s eyes are precious. Keep them healthy with a few simple practices. First, if your dog has long hair, keep it trimmed around her eyes to avoid irritation. Always use blunt-tip scissors held parallel to the eye and trim only when she’s calm and still. 

It’s also important to keep your dog’s eyes clear of debris and mucus. Keeping a dog’s eyes clean on a daily basis is similar to how to clean a dog’s eye infection: Apply a clean, warm cloth to the area to loosen and soften any eye boogers or crust in the surrounding fur. Gently wipe the area clean, being sure to avoid rubbing the eye itself.

Keep your pup happy and healthy with routine eye care and be sure to note any changes in the appearance of her eyes. And remember, eye care is just one part of your dog’s overall health. Schedule an appointment with your veterinarian to ensure your furry friend is up-to-date on all preventatives, medications, and vaccinations.