Puppy dog eyes! There’s nothing quite like them for seeing straight into your soul. But what if those big, brown eyes stop looking appealing and start looking sticky and sore?
Healthy eyes are so important to our pet pals and yet major problems often start as minor ones… and it’s not always easy to spot the difference. If something isn’t right get it checked by a vet. Don’t wait to see what happens and risk the pet’s eyesight.
In this post we look at the identification, treatment and prevention of dog eye infections.
Does Conjunctivitis and Inflammation Indicate An Eye Infection?
To many people’s thinking, eye infection and conjunctivitis is one and the same thing. However, for the pedants amongst you, know this isn’t the case.
In truth, conjunctivitis refers to ‘inflammation of the conjunctiva’ and infection isn’t the only cause. Other things such as irritation and allergy can also cause inflammation. Think of streaming eyes because of hay fever, which is a form of conjunctivitis but without infection.
Taking things further, for our pet pals, other problems that cause inflamed eyes include:
- Dry eye: This is due to a lack of tear fluid so the eye becomes hot, itchy, and inflamed
- Allergies: Pollens, perfumes, and air fresheners are all possible sources of allergic reactions in dogs
- Irritation: The dog that sticks out the car window, may well get grit in the eye which causes inflammation.
- Ulcers: An ulcer on the surface of the eye causes pain and inflammation, and can easily be mistaken for a ‘conjunctivitis’ (an infection)
- A scratch or laceration to the cornea: An active dog that chases through undergrowth can easy scratch their cornea (surface of the eye)
- A foreign body, such as a grass awn, caught behind the eyelid
- Lashes rubbing on the cornea: Some dogs develop eyelashes that grow inwards and rub against the eye, causing a constant source of soreness.
- Glaucoma: This refers to an increased pressure within the eye, cause it to stretch and enlarge. This is a serious condition which threatens eyesight and needs urgent treatment.
The problem is each of the above can mimic an eye infection, and yet they need different treatment. Also to take an extreme example, an untreated ulcer that erodes into the eye, could cause the loss of that eye. Hence the importance of not guessing what the matter is but instead getting a vet check.
Signs of A Dog Eye Infection
OK, so let’s focus in on Dog eye infections. The symptoms are those of discomfort and irritation, including:
- The whites of the eye take on a hazy red appearance
- There’s often a sticky discharge and the eye gummed up after sleep
- The dog paws or rubs at the eye (One reason infections need treatment is to prevent rubbing, since this can damage the eye’s surface)
But…and it’s a big but…don’t get hung up on whether the symptoms are due to an infection or not. The important thing is to decide whether or not the pet needs to see a vet. There are many conditions that have similar symptoms and a vet need to use special dyes and magnifying equipment to tell them apart.
Clues That Your Dog Has An Eye Infection
However, there are signs that point heavily towards an infection. The biggest of which is a yellow-green discharge from the eye. This is the really unpleasant, purulent, discharge from the inner corner of the eye. In some cases the discharge is so profuse it comes back, just a few minutes after wiping the eye. And when the dog wakes up, their eyelids are gummed together.
Dog eye infections are often just that – i.e. infectious. So the problem may start in one eye and then spread to the other. Or, if there are several dogs in the house, it may start in one dog and pass to others.
So let’s imagine a dog has a sticky, yellow-green discharge. What else might you see? Well, the dog might blink or wink a lot, and hold the eye partially closed.
Check out the whites of the eyes. Dogs with conjunctivitis (regardless of the cause) often have a hazy pink soreness where once was clear white (but this can be confused with other conditions such as glaucoma). Dogs also have an extra eyelid that people don’t have. This ‘third eyelid’ sits in the inner corner of the eye, and this may also become red and sore
Cause or Consequence?
But here’s a thing, and sorry to labor the point. An eye infection may be symptoms of another problem. What do I mean by this?
Well, let’s say a dog is playing with the new kitten in the house and takes a swipe to the eye. Unfortunately those needle sharp claws cause a shallow cut to the cornea. This is painful, causing the eye to stream and the dog to hold the eye shut. If the cut becomes infected and the discharge turns yellow-green, this is infection is consequence of damage to the eye, rather than the other way round.
See where this is going? An infected cut can be serious as it can cause a melting ulcer. The point being, it’s never safe to assume an eye infection is a diagnosis in its own right until the vet has proven this to be true.
Another aspect of dog eye infections is that they can be part of a bigger package. Take distemper as the classic example. The sticky eyes linked to distemper are just one of several symptoms including a runny nose, fever, and poor appetite. Again, these guys need a proper assessment to work out a way forward.
Managing Your Dog's Sore Eye at Home
What can you do at home to help the dog whilst waiting to see the vet?
- Stop rubbing: If the dog keeps pawing at the eye or worse, rubbing it along the carpet, then stop them. Sadly, this means using a ‘cone of shame’ that is large enough to protect the eye. No, the dog won’t like it, but it could prevent serious complications that mean they need to wear a collar for much, much longer.
- Keep the eye clean: Wipe away the discharge regularly, especially if it’s gumming the eyelids shut. Use clean cotton wool soaked in previously boiled, then cooled, water. Gently wipe away from the eye to remove the discharge. Use a clean piece of cotton wool each time, and for each eye.
Bathing the eye with copious amounts of cooled boiled water can help by flushing away dust or allergens. This is usually the best that home remedies can achieve. Sadly, most home remedies rarely work: If infection is present, either the immune system or antibiotics are going to get rid of it. Indeed, there’s a risk that trying a home remedy could delay getting a firm diagnosis.
Flat Faced Breeds are a special case. Those adorable squished-faced come with large eyes that are at greater risk of ulcers than other breeds. Yes, stop the dog rubbing. Yes, bathe their eyes. But always see a vet as soon as possible.
Is There Anything You Can Do To Prevent Your Dog Getting An Eye Infection?
How can you prevent eye infections in dogs?
Eye infections can be passed from dog to dog. As a responsible owner, if your dog has an infection then keep them separate until the symptoms have cleared.
Good hygiene is important, so if one eye is infected, always wash your hands before touching the other eye.
Other sensible precautions include not letting the dog lie with their face in a draft or travel with the head out of an open car window.
What Do Vets Look For If They Suspect Your Dog Has An Eye Infection?
When a dog visits the vet with a sore eye, the examination starts the moment they walk in the room. The vet will already be looking at them from a distance to see if both eyes look the same. In fact, it’s often easier to notice things like a slit squint or rapid blinking, when you can see both eyes at a distance.
Then when the vet gets down to business, they carefully look at the eye with their own naked eye. This gives information about:
- Do both eyes look the same? Or is one eye smaller or larger than its partner
- Position of the eyelids: Are the eyelids held normally or is the dog squinting or blinking
- How shiny is the surface of the eye: The vet looks for a healthy glisten and an unbroken reflection
What about the whites of the eyes: Are they clear white, inflamed, or are angry blood vessels present?
Only then will the vet pick up an instrument called an ophthalmoscope. This is a magnifying device that has a bright light source. It allows the vet to see in great detail features on the outside (such as eyelashes) and inside of the eye.
During the ophthalmoscope exam the vet looks to check for stray eyelashes and other sources of irritation, right through to the back of the eye and the health of the retina.
The vet may then do other tests such as measuring how much tear fluid is produced or putting a special dye into the eye. The latter is a dye called fluorescein which stains areas of damage and can make it easier to see cuts or ulcers on the corneal surface. Another useful, benefit is it drains away via the tear ducts and can tell the vet if these are blocked or not.
Drawing all this information together, the vet can then reach a diagnosis.
When To See The Vet?
And last but not least, anyone that still isn’t convinced to visit the vet, look at sore eye and then check against the list below. These are all good reasons to make that call.
- Broken reflection on the surface of the eye
- The surface is not shiny
- The eye is painful
- The lids gum shut
- The dog seems in pain or is rubbing at the eye
- The problem is getting worse rather than better
- There are angry red blood vessels across white of eye
- The eyes don’t look symmetrical, with one looking different to the other
Other symptoms present and the dog is otherwise unwell showing signs such as:
- Poor appetite
- Lacking in energy
…and they also have sticky eyes, then a vet visit is a must.
Look out for your pet and keep their eyes healthy. Sight is too precious to put at risk.
Author: Dr Pippa Elliott BVMS MRCVS
Dr. Pippa graduated as a veterinarian from Glasgow University in 1987. Since then she has worked in companion animal practice and has a special interest in internal medicine. Pippa is housekeeping staff to a naughty puggle, three cats, and a bearded dragon.