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Conjunctivitis In Cats: Symptoms, Treatment, and More

Conjunctivitis is a very common eye condition in cats. It’s most common in young kittens, but it can affect any cat at any age. 

When conjunctivitis occurs, it’s important to seek treatment to help your kitty feel better and avoid complications, and to prevent spread of the condition to other cats in the home. 

Here’s what to expect if your kitty has conjunctivitis.

What Is Conjunctivitis In Cats?

“Conjunctiva” is the term for the thin mucus membranes (moist, pink or pale tissue) that line the eyeballs, inner surfaces of the eyelids, and the third eyelid (located at the inner corner of each eye). 

The term “conjunctivitis” refers to inflammation or infection of these tissues, which results in redness, tearing or watering, and other signs of irritation in the eye area. One or both eyes would have an appearance similar to pink eye in humans.

Symptoms of Conjunctivitis in Cats

Common feline conjunctivitis symptoms (which may be present in one or both eyes) include:

  • Redness of the eye(s) or surrounding skin.
  • Eye discharge that is watery, cloudy, dark, yellow, or green.
  • Squinting or excessive blinking.
  • Swelling of the eyelid(s) or conjunctiva.

Cats that have infectious conjunctivitis may also show symptoms of an upper respiratory infection, such as sneezing, a runny nose, a fever, lethargy, or decreased appetite.

SEE ALSO: What Is Ectropion in Dogs & Cats?

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What Causes Cat Conjunctivitis?

Feline conjunctivitis falls into two categories: infectious or non-infectious. Infectious causes of conjunctivitis are much more common.

Infectious Causes of Feline Conjunctivitis

  • The most common viral infections are caused by feline herpesvirus (FHV-1, also known as feline viral rhinotracheitis) and feline calicivirus. 

Feline herpesvirus is extremely common. Most cats are exposed at a young age, and kitten conjunctivitis occurs commonly since young kittens don’t yet have a fully developed immune system.

After their initial exposure, many cats carry the virus their whole life without showing any symptoms — at least, not until something causes stress or weakens their immune system. At these times, cats that carry the virus (often unknown to a pet parent) may have a flare-up. 

  • The most common bacterial infections that cause feline conjunctivitis are Chlamydophila and Mycoplasma. Additionally, secondary infections with the bacteria Staphylococci or Streptococci can accompany a viral infection.
  • A compromised immune system may make a cat more prone to developing infectious conjunctivitis. This includes conditions such as feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV), feline leukemia virus (FeLV), very young or old age, underlying health problems, and frequent treatment with certain steroidal medications.
  • Stress — for example, a sudden change in the home, boarding, or traveling — can also cause flare-ups of infectious conjunctivitis. 

Non-Infectious Causes of Feline Conjunctivitis

  • Airborne irritants such as dirt, smoke, dust, or chemicals.
  • Environmental allergens such as pollen.
  • Trauma or injuries to the eye(s).
  • Other eye issues such as tumors, eyelid abnormalities, or conditions that cause inflammation.

How Is Conjunctivitis Diagnosed In Cats?

A veterinarian can determine that a cat has conjunctivitis just by looking at them, since conjunctivitis describes a set of symptoms. However, diagnostic testing is needed to determine what caused the conjunctivitis.

Common diagnostic tests include:

  • A thorough exam of a cat’s eyes and eye tests such as measuring tear production and eye pressure, or testing for eye ulcers/scratches.
  • Tests for infectious diseases, including eye infections, FIV, FeLV, etc.
  • Whole-body health tests, such as bloodwork, if underlying health conditions are suspected.

The diagnostic testing plan will vary based on an individual cat’s health status, medical history, lifestyle, and other factors. 

Treatment for Cat Conjunctivitis

The prognosis varies depending on what caused the condition, how severe it is, and a cat’s overall health status. Fortunately, most kitties respond well to prompt treatment, with symptoms resolving in 1-2 weeks. However, some cats develop complications (such as an eye ulcer that can cause permanent damage), and some struggle with chronic or recurrent conjunctivitis.

Maybe you’re wondering if cat conjunctivitis will go away by itself. Sometimes that can happen with mild symptoms, but it’s best to consult a vet to be safe.

A veterinary visit is recommended to prevent eye discomfort and rule out serious conditions like an eye ulcer. Also, if you have other cats in the home, prompt treatment is crucial to preventing spread of the disease.

Here’s what to expect and some of the most common cat conjunctivitis treatments:

  • Eye drops or ointments. These typically contain antiviral or antibiotic medications (even if a viral infection is suspected, antibiotics may be used to prevent secondary bacterial infections, which are common).
  • Medications by mouth. Depending on your kitty’s diagnosis and how they’re feeling, this may include antiviral, antibiotic, or pain-relieving medications.
  • An Elizabethan collar. This prevents a kitty from accidentally scratching their eye while trying to itch the area, which could lead to an eye ulcer.
  • Supplements for cats, such as L-lysine that helps slow down feline herpesvirus replication.
  • Keeping the eye area clean. For kitties with crusty or accumulated eye discharge, holding a warm, wet cloth over their closed eye helps break down “eye gunk,” so it can be wiped away without discomfort. The warmth might also be soothing.
  • Preventing spread to other cats and people. Infectious conjunctivitis is highly contagious and spreads rapidly between cats. Therefore, it’s important to isolate a cat with conjunctivitis in their own room if possible, wash your hands after interacting with them, and avoid sharing supplies and toys with other cats in the home until a full recovery is made. While uncommon, certain bacterial infections can also spread to humans through direct contact. Good hygiene, such as washing your hands after touching your cat, helps to prevent this risk.

Note: Never give human medications (or even treatments previously prescribed by a veterinarian) to a cat without first checking with your vet. Some human medications are toxic to cats, and giving the wrong eye drops can make the condition worse.

How to Administer Eye Medications to Cats

Giving eye medications as scheduled is crucial for helping a cat recover. This involves placing liquid drops or ointment into the affected eye(s). This may seem daunting at first, but many pet parents can master this skill with a few helpful tips.

Ask the veterinary team for a demonstration while you’re at the office. That way, you can see exactly how it works, which may make it easier to repeat the process at home.

Here are a few tips to make the process easier (for you and your cat):

  • If prescribed timings allow, give medicines while your cat is sleepy.
  • Have another person help you, and/or wrap your kitty in a towel.
  • Be calm yourself, since pets can pick up on our stress. 
  • Gently pull on the upper or lower eyelid to open the eye. Many cats do best with minimal restraint, although you should always keep safety in mind if there’s any chance of your kitty biting or scratching.
  • If your cat resists opening their eyes, make a noise that will pique their curiosity.
  • Administer the medication from behind or from the side, which is less alarming to a cat then bringing medication straight at them from the front.
  • Offer a treat, playtime, or praise and attention afterward to make it a positive experience.

Always give eye medications for the entire course prescribed. Don’t stop early, even if your cat’s symptoms get better. Otherwise, the infection could come right back or get worse.

SEE ALSO: What Is Ectropion in Dogs & Cats?

Preventing Conjunctivitis and Eye Infections in Cats

Even if a pet parent does everything right, many kitties will still have at least one episode of conjunctivitis in their lifetime, since it’s a very common and highly contagious condition. However, there are several things you can do to minimize the risk:

  • Routine vaccinations, as recommended by your vet, help protect against common infectious causes of conjunctivitis. 
  • Maintaining good overall health, including feeding a complete and balanced food, helps keep your cat’s immune system strong.
  • If your cat will be around other cats (boarding, grooming, etc.) or experiencing a stressful situation (moving, traveling, having a new cat adopted into the home, etc.), ask your vet about supplements or other recommendations for these times, especially if your kitty has a history of conjunctivitis. 
  • Choose boarding or grooming facilities that require all cats to be up to date on vaccinations. While this can’t completely eliminate the possibility of infections, it does greatly reduce the risk.
  • Try to eliminate environmental irritants such as dust, smoke, and chemicals in the home.

No one enjoys dealing with conjunctivitis or watching their pet be uncomfortable. Fortunately, prompt treatment can help many kitties recover quickly from conjunctivitis. Contact your vet if you notice any symptoms, so your furry friend can feel better and get back to all their favorite activities! 

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