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When Does an Eye ‘Problem’ Become a Crisis?

In this video, Dr. Karen Becker discusses one of the most common reasons for trips to the vet’s office: eye infections.
Dr. Becker's Comments:

Eye problems are one of the most common reasons dogs and cats visit the vet.

The seriousness of an eye infection in a companion animal can vary. The infection might be harmless and self-limiting, meaning your pet’s body heals itself.

Or it could be traumatic and cause permanent damage up to and including blindness or the loss of an eye.

Or it might be something in between those two extremes.

Veterinarians categorize eye infections as “urgent.” Most are not a true emergency unless there’s been trauma to the eye or sudden bulging, in which case you need to get your pet to his regular vet or an animal emergency clinic right away.

Generally speaking, you can consider your pet’s eye infection urgent if there are obvious changes to the eye that grow progressively worse to the point where you’re concerned.

If your dog’s or cat’s quality of life is suffering due to an eye problem, it’s another sign the situation is urgent. For example, if yesterday you noticed your cat blinking frequently, and today he’s not opening one of his eyes at all, it’s time to call your veterinarian for an appointment as soon as possible, within 72 hours at the outside.

Feline Eye Infections

Cats don’t have as many eye problems as dogs because many kitties live their lives indoors, dramatically reducing the risk of an eye injury or infection.

Outdoor cats, however, have about the same level of risk as their canine counterparts.

Viral eye infections in cats are typically caused by the feline herpes virus. Once a cat is infected with herpes virus the infection will be lifelong, with flare-ups often brought on by stress.

If your cat is exposed to a herpes virus, chances are she’ll never completely clear the virus from her body. Because herpes is a stress-induced condition, cats with a well-functioning immune system can effectively suppress the virus.

But if your kitty’s immune system is weakened for any reason, or if your pet endures a stressful situation, a viral outbreak can result.

Keep in mind that your idea of stress and what feels stressful to your cat are very different things. For example, suppose you have a guest with a small child visiting your home for several days or weeks.

If your kitty isn’t used to a baby’s cry, just this new, distressing sound in the night over a few nights can be read by your cat’s body as stress.

And that’s all the stress it might take to cause a herpes-positive cat to express the virus, causing redness, irritation and inflammation in the eyes. It could also lead to a secondary bacterial infection.

Cats can also develop primary bacterial eye infections caused, for example, by chlamydia, as well as fungal infections like cryptococcus fungus.

With an eye infection that isn’t resolving on its own, it’s important to identify the cause of so you know how best to treat it. Infections caused by a virus, a bacteria or a fungus are all handled differently.

Symptoms and Prevention

Symptoms of an eye infection in your kitty can be a tricky to detect, because cats are very good at hiding their discomfort, no matter the cause.

You may notice your pet slowly blinking her eyes, or holding them closed to lubricate the corneas. You might notice some redness, which can be a sign of a condition known as conjunctivitis.

Sometimes an eye infection will cause a smelly discharge; crusting around the eyes is also common. You might also notice your cat pawing at her eyes.

The best way to keep your kitty safe from viral, bacterial and fungal infections is to keep her indoors. There is some exposure indoors, but it’s minimal. You can reduce your pet’s risk of acquiring an eye infection by at least 80 percent by simply keeping her inside.

Canine Eye Infections

Eye infections in dogs and cats have the same root causes: viruses, bacteria and fungi. In dogs, however, Lyme disease can also cause an eye infection – strange, but true.

Eye infections are either acute or recurrent. An acute infection means your pup looked fine yesterday, but today he’s squinting. His eyes are red and irritated looking, and he’s pawing at them or rubbing his head along the couch or on the carpet trying to alleviate the discomfort.

If your dog is really tearing at or rubbing his eyes, you should consider an E collar to prevent him from doing permanent damage before the situation either resolves on its own, or you get him to the vet for diagnosis and treatment.

Symptoms of an eye infection are similar in dogs and cats. Many dogs will have a green or yellow discharge from an infected eye, which is a definite sign of a problem.

Certain breeds known for tear staining are predisposed to recurrent eye infections, including the Lhasa apso, the Shih tzu and the Maltese.

Reducing the Risk of Eye Infection in Your Dog

  • If your dog has long hair around his eyes, ask the groomer to clip it short, or trim it yourself. This will help prevent the hair from matting and also reduce moisture buildup, both of which can set the stage for a secondary infection in or around your dog’s eye.
  • When your dog is outside, he’s exposed to allergens which he also brings indoors on his fur and paws. Ragweed and pollen can get into your dog’s eyes and cause inflammation leading to a secondary bacterial infection.

    Keeping your pup’s face clean is a good way to control the microscopic bits of debris that collect on his face. Wipe gently with a damp cloth to remove allergens, dust and other irritants that can lead to an eye problem.

  • If your dog’s eyes tear a lot, it’s important to remove the salt that collects in the moist crevices in the corners of his eyes, as this is also a set-up for a secondary eye infection.
  • Some of you won’t like hearing this, but making sure your dog doesn’t stick his head out the car window during travel is also important for reducing the risk of eye injury or infection.
  • If your dog digs and burrows in your yard or other outdoor spots, he’s at risk of getting mulch, grass and other irritants in the soil into his eyes. Any foreign object, no matter how small, that winds up in your pet’s eye creates a potential problem.

    Again, keeping your pet’s face clean by wiping with a soft, damp cloth after he’s been outdoors can go a long way toward eliminating the irritants that can result in infection.

  • Don’t use Visine or other similar eye drops designed for humans in your pet’s eyes. You can use plain contact lens saline solution (also called ‘eye irrigating solution’) to rinse your dog’s or cat’s eyes, but avoid all chemical-based drops sold for human use, as they are completely inappropriate for animals.

Other Eye Problems in Pets

Other conditions of the eye can mimic an infection, including:

  • Glaucoma
  • Corneal ulcers; corneal wounds caused by a puncture or foreign body in the eye
  • Dry eye, also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca and characterized by a thick mucous coating over the eye
  • Cherry eye (prolapse of the third eyelid gland)
  • Entropion (the turning in of the lid margins)
  • Uveitis, an autoimmune disease

If you notice a change in your pet’s eyes that doesn’t resolve fairly quickly on its own, make an appointment for your dog or cat to be seen by your holistic veterinarian or veterinary ophthalmologist to determine the cause of the problem and the right course of treatment.

If your pet is prone to recurrent eye infections, talk with your holistic vet about homeopathic, herbal and nutraceutical preventives to help manage the health of your dog’s or cat’s eyes.

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