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Conjunctivitis in Cats, aka Cat Pink Eye

Est. read time: 4 min.

Written by Justine Lee, DVM, DACVECC, DABT

Can cats get pink eye? Yes, they can—and it’s called conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis in cats is not contagious to you, but it is highly contagious to other felines. Conjunctivitis is the most common ailment that affects cats’ eyes at some point in their lives; that said, it’s more common in younger cats than older cats. 

What exactly is conjunctivitis?

Conjunctivitis is an inflammation of the mucous membranes (conjunctiva) found on the inside surface of your cat’s eyelids. The conjunctiva acts like a protective wrap around the eyeball and helps lubricate the eye. The conjunctiva also contains natural antibodies that help fight off eye infections.

What causes conjunctivitis in cats?

The main causes of conjunctivitis are:

  • Viruses (e.g., Herpesvirus, calicivirus)
  • Bacteria (e.g., Mycoplasma, Chlamydia)
  • Environmental factors (e.g., dust, pollen, irritants, etc.)
  • Systemic diseases (e.g., feline leukemia, FIV, etc.)

So, what are signs of conjunctivitis in cats?

Signs of conjunctivitis in cats include:

  • Squinting
  • Redness of the inside eyelids
  • Presence of discharge from the eyes
  • Frequent blinking
  • Third eyelid elevation
  • Swollen eyelids or tissue around the eye

These signs are very similar to other causes of eye problems, such as corneal ulcers (from a cat scratch), corneal perforation (from severe injury), uveitis (e.g., inflammation of the inside of the eye), glaucoma, and more. So when in doubt, get to a veterinarian or board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist as soon as possible to get your cat’s eyes checked out!

Which cats get conjunctivitis?

If you just recently adopted a cat, you may notice him sneezing more from an upper respiratory infection (URI). Conjunctivitis can be a secondary complication from this URI. While any aged cat can get conjunctivitis, it’s more commonly seen in cats that came from rescue organizations, shelters, catteries, or other multiple-cat environments. Immunosuppressed cats, such as those with feline leukemia (FeLV) or FIV (kitty AIDS), are also at increased risk. As a veterinarian, I see it more in kittens and young cats, as older cats often will develop some immunity to it.

How do you treat conjunctivitis in cats?

Severe cases of URI can cause severe corneal ulcers, which show similar signs to conjunctivitis. Your vet will need to do a fluorescein stain (a non-painful dye that temporarily colors the surface of the eye, looking for evidence of ulcers or damage to the cornea). With uncomplicated cases of conjunctivitis, treatment typically includes antibiotic ointment or eyedrops that need to be given 3-4x/day for 2-3 weeks until the signs resolve. In severe cases suspected to be related to viral conjunctivitis, topical antiviral drugs may also be used. More importantly, don’t re-use any type of eye medication that wasn’t prescribed for your cat without checking with your veterinarian, as certain types (e.g., those containing steroids) can make your cat worse!

Note: Please don’t use your own triple antibiotic ointment on your cat. Rarely, cats can have a severe anaphylactic reaction to triple antibiotic ointment. Erythromycin and other tetracycline topical ophthalmic medications are typically used instead.

How do you prevent conjunctivitis?

As younger or immunosuppressed cats are more at risk, it’s important to keep your cat up to date on his or her vaccines. That’s because some of these viral infections can be prevented with vaccination. Also, by keeping your cat indoors (to minimize risks of infectious diseases), you can prevent conjunctivitis. If your cat has chronic upper respiratory infections and gets concurrent conjunctivitis from it, it’s worth minimizing the stress in your cat’s life. In other words, skip bringing your cat on weekend road trips, as your cat typically prefers to be at home with a pet sitter instead!

What’s the prognosis for conjunctivitis in cats?

If your cat was just diagnosed with conjunctivitis, fear not. The prognosis is thankfully good with treatment. Just be aware that your cat could potentially get it again if not completely treated for the full duration or if a virus “recrudesces” or recurs. Herpesvirus—the same one that causes cold sores in you—can hide in the body and occasionally come out during stressful episodes, resulting in lifelong infections and potential conjunctivitis. 

When in doubt, check with your veterinarian if you think your cat has “pink eye.” We don’t want your cat to be in discomfort!

Cover photo by Echo on Unsplash

white cat squinting - conjunctivitis in cats

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