Assessing Your Pet's Eye Discharge

Like their human owners, dogs and cats sometimes wake up with "sleepers" in their eyes -- a crusty discharge that results from the eye's natural self-cleaning efforts. All pets will occasionally have some discharge, although bulgy-eyed breeds such as pugs, Pekingese, and Persian cats are much more prone to it than others.

"If you can wipe away the sleepers in the morning with a damp tissue and they don't accumulate to any extent during the day, then you generally don't have to worry about it," says Nancy Willerton, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in Denver. "But when the discharge continues throughout the day, your pet may have an infection."

Eye infections are fairly common, Dr. Willerton adds. They can crop up on their own or when something lodges in the eye. They can also occur when the surface of the eye, called the cornea, gets scratched. A telltale sign of infection is the appearance of the discharge: It will often be thick, yellow, gray, or green. It may form a crust on the eyelids as well.

Pets with viral infections such as feline respiratory disease in cats and canine adenovirus in dogs will often develop runny eyes. "It may start out as a watery discharge but then become thicker as the infection progresses," says Terri McGinnis, D.V.M., a veterinarian in private practice in the San Francisco area and author of The Well Cat Book and The Well Dog Book.

"Dogs and cats are prone to seasonal allergies, and the only sign may be a sticky eye discharge," says Craig N. Carter, D.V.M., Ph.D., head of epidemiology at Texas Veterinary Medical Diagnostic Laboratory at Texas A&M University. Unlike bacterial or viral infections, allergies usually result in a clear discharge, he adds. Your pet may be scratching himself and have bloodshot eyes as well.

A problem in older pets is that the eyes naturally become drier. This makes it easy for the outer portion of the eye to get irritated and inflamed, which can result in a sticky, yellow discharge on the surface of the eyeball.

Finally, some pets have a slight genetic defect called entropion, in which the eyelid turns inward and causes the lashes to brush against the surface of the eye. In cats and some breeds of dogs, like golden and Labrador retrievers, entropion often affects the lower eyelid. In dogs with big heads and loose facial skin, such as Saint Bernards, shar-peis, and Chow Chows, both lids can be affected. Over time entropion can cause irritation and infection, resulting in a discharge.

See Your Vet If...

  • Your pet has an eye infection
  • You have a bulgy-eyed breed like a Persian cat or Pekingese dog, or a giant breed of dog like a mastiff
  • Your pet is scratching a lot and has bloodshot eyes
  • Your pet won't quit scratching or pawing his eyes
  • His eyes have turned blue, gray, or cloudy, or he is having trouble getting around
  • His eyes are frequently bloodshot or dry
  • There has been a watery or discolored discharge from the eyes for 48 hours or more
  • Your pet's eyes are bulging
  • The eyelids are swollen or unable to close
  • There is a growth on the eye or eyelid
  • One or both pupils are dilated, or they don't respond to light
  • Your pet seems very sensitive to light
  • The eyes are droopy or sunken
  • The third eyelids are covering the lower parts of the eyes
  • His eyes are continually moving back and forth
  • Blood or tiny blood vessels are visible in the center (not the whites) of his eyes
  • His eyelid appears to be turned inward or outward

For more information on how to take care of your cat's eyes check out Petside.com

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