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Conjunctivitis in Dogs: Symptoms, Treatment, and More

Conjunctivitis is a fairly common eye condition that involves redness, irritation, or discharge in one or both eyes. It can affect dogs of any breed or age. 

While not necessarily a serious condition in and of itself, conjunctivitis could be a symptom of a more serious underlying condition, or it could cause pain or complications such as damage to the eye if left untreated. Below we outline what’s important to know about dog conjunctivitis.

What Is Conjunctivitis in Dogs?

“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 Dog Conjunctivitis

Common signs of canine conjunctivitis include:

  • Redness or swelling of the eye area.
  • Eye discharge that is watery, cloudy, yellow, or green.
  • Squinting or excessive blinking.
  • Rubbing or pawing at the affected eye(s).

Symptoms can be present in one or both eyes. Depending on what’s causing the conjunctivitis, some dogs may have additional symptoms, such as a runny nose, coughing, sneezing, or signs of illness/not feeling well.

Other, more serious conditions of the eye can present with similar symptoms — so it’s important to seek veterinary care to know for sure. 

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SEE ALSO: Kittens and FVRCP

What Causes Conjunctivitis in Dogs?

Common causes of canine conjunctivitis include:

  • Allergic conjunctivitis (especially with seasonal allergies or when pollen counts are high). This is one of the most common causes of canine conjunctivitis.
  • Airborne irritants such as dirt, smoke, dust, or chemicals.
  • Trauma to the eye, such as an injury, a foreign body (sand, dirt, plant material, etc.) stuck under the eyelid, or an eyelid tumor that rubs against the eyeball.
  • Infectious diseases, including viral infections like canine distemper virus or bacterial infections. In dogs, infectious causes of conjunctivitis are much less common than other causes, although opportunistic bacterial infections may develop secondary to conjunctivitis.
  • Immune-mediated conditions.
  • A blocked nasolacrimal duct (where the tears normally drain).
  • Other eye issues such as dry eye, eyelid/eyelash abnormalities, or glaucoma.

A dog’s breed may affect their risk for certain eye conditions, too. For example, an inflammatory condition called plasma cell conjunctivitis is associated with German Shepherds. Dogs with wrinkly faces are more predisposed to eyelid abnormalities. And short-nosed breeds (Pugs, Bulldogs, etc.) can be prone to eye irritation or dryness due to the way their eyes bulge out compared to other breeds.

Is Conjunctivitis in Dogs Contagious?

Infectious causes of conjunctivitis are rare compared to other, non-infectious causes like allergies or irritants. However, when they do occur, infections can be contagious between dogs. It’s important to avoid contact with other dogs, wash your hands after petting or treating your pup, and avoid sharing water/food bowls, toys, and other objects with canine friends until your pup has made a full recovery.

It might be possible for certain types of bacterial conjunctivitis to spread from dogs to people (and vice versa), but fortunately, experts state this is very rare. If you want to be on the safe side, it’s a good idea to practice strict hygiene like washing your hands often.

Diagnosis of Conjunctivitis in Dogs

A veterinarian can determine that a dog 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. 

Knowing the cause of the conjunctivitis will help determine the best course of treatment.

Common diagnostic tests include:

  • A thorough exam of a dog’s eyes, with eye tests such as measuring tear production and eye pressure, flushing the nasolacrimal duct and eyelid pockets, or testing for eye ulcers/scratches.
  • Culture and sensitivity testing for bacterial infections.
  • Biopsies.
  • Bloodwork or allergy testing.

The diagnostic testing plan will vary based on an individual pup’s symptoms, medical history, and other factors. 

What’s the Prognosis for a Dog with Conjunctivitis?

Fortunately, most dogs recover just fine with appropriate treatment. 

That being said, the prognosis depends on what caused the conjunctivitis, on how severe the condition is, and on whether there are any complications (such as a scratch or ulcer on the eye). 

Some pups may have more frequent flare-ups, and dogs with certain conditions (such as chronic dry eye) may need lifelong treatments.

Eye problems can get worse quickly! If your pup has symptoms of conjunctivitis, a prompt veterinary visit is recommended to prevent eye discomfort, rule out more serious conditions, and prevent complications that could cause permanent eye damage. 

Conjunctivitis in Dogs: Treatments and Home Care

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

  • Eye drops or ointments. These commonly contain antibiotic or anti-inflammatory medications, or a combination of both. Even if the underlying cause of conjunctivitis is non-infectious, veterinarians often still prescribe antibiotic eye drops to prevent secondary/opportunistic bacterial infections that could make things worse.
  • Medications by mouth. Depending on their diagnosis and symptoms, some pups may need additional support with oral medications. Common examples include an antihistamine like Benadryl for conjunctivitis due to seasonal allergies, or a dog-safe pain medication to relieve eye pain.
  • An Elizabethan collar. Dogs may scratch or rub the eye area when they have conjunctivitis — which could lead to a scratch or ulcer on the eye that could cause permanent damage and affect a dog’s vision. A “cone” helps prevent this complication. If you can’t get in to see your vet right away, consider placing an e-collar on your dog in the meantime, to prevent your pup from accidentally scratching their eye.
  • Keeping the eye area clean: Hold a clean, wet cloth over a dog’s closed eye to break down eye discharge that’s accumulated on their skin or fur. A plain, saline eye wash or (non-medicated) tears drops are usually safe to use while waiting for your veterinary appointment. But never force these if your pup’s eye seems painful, and ask your veterinary team if you have any doubt. Don’t use contact lens solution.
  • A cold compress may feel soothing to some pups. Use a cold, wet washcloth or a soft, cold compress with a towel over it so it’s not too cold against your pooch’s skin. Hold the compress in place for up to a few minutes at a time, a few times per day. If your dog doesn’t like it, don’t force it. 
  • Surgery may be required for some conditions, such as eyelid tumors and eyelid/eyelash malformations, to physically remove the growth or abnormality that is irritating the eye(s).

Note: Never give human medications (even herbal remedies) or treatments previously prescribed by a veterinarian to a dog without first checking with your vet. Giving the wrong medication can make things much worse! Additionally, some human products are not safe for pets.

Tips for Giving a Dog Eye Medication

Giving eye medications as scheduled is crucial for helping a dog 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.

Basically, the process works like this:

  • Allow your furry friend to be comfortable but safely restrained. This could mean sitting in your lap, having a second person hold them still, or whatever works best for your individual pup.
  • Make the experience as pleasant as possible. Offer praise, talk soothingly, and give your pup a treat or extra attention afterward. Also, approach with the medication from the side or back of your dog (this is less alarming than something coming at them from the front).
  • If needed, clean any discharge from the eye area by gently wiping it with a wet cloth or cotton ball.
  • Prepare the eye medication. Gently lift your dog’s head, resting your hand (the one holding the medication) on your dog’s head so you can move with them if they make any sudden movements.
  • Gently pull down on the upper or lower eyelid. For liquid eye drops, it may be easier to pull on the upper lid and allow the drops to fall onto the white of the eye. For ointment, it may be easier to pull on the lower lid to create a pocket for the ointment. See what works best for you.

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

Preventing Conjunctivitis in Dogs

Conjunctivitis is a fairly common condition in dogs, so it’s not unusual for a pup to have at least one incident in their lifetime. 

However, there are several things you can do to minimize the risk. These include keeping your dog up to date on routine vaccinations and health checks, avoiding allergens and irritants as much as possible, not using shampoo on the face during your pup’s baths, and seeking veterinary care at the first sign of an eye issue.

No one enjoys dealing with conjunctivitis or watching their furry BFF be uncomfortable. Fortunately, prompt treatment can help many dogs 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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