What Are Eye Infections in Newborn Kittens?
If your kitten has an eye infection, your veterinarian may diagnose them with ophthalmia neonatorum, a general term meaning inflammation of the eye in a newborn. Though the eyelids of kittens are normally closed until they’re about 10–14 days old, bacteria and viruses can still make their way underneath and cause serious infections. Areas especially susceptible to infection include the cornea and conjunctiva.
The conjunctiva is a moist, slippery lining that covers the eyeball and both the upper and lower eyelids. Cats also have a third eyelid in the inner corner of each eye, which is also lined with conjunctiva. On the eyeball, the conjunctiva is clear; on the inside of the three eyelids, it’s light pink.
The cornea is the “window”—the clear outermost surface—of the eye. Because of its curved shape, the cornea, like a window, bends light as it enters the eye. The cornea is made up of three clear, specialized layers of cells.
When infection occurs in newborn kittens, where the eyelids are still closed, thick pus forms underneath the eyelids and can cause serious, permanent damage to the surface of the cornea—scarring it, making it impermeable to light. Also, with an infection, the conjunctiva can stick to the cornea. Conjunctivitis occurs when the conjunctiva is inflamed.
Types of Eye Infections in Newborn Kittens
Although puppies can have this condition as well, ophthalmia neonatorum in kittens typically involves feline herpesvirus (FHV) and/or Staphylococcus, Streptococcus, Chlamydia, or Mycoplasma bacteria as the underlying cause of infection.
Causes of Eye Infections in Newborn Kittens
Because the conjunctiva and cornea are so susceptible to infections in newborn kittens, the eyes most commonly become infected as they pass through their mother’s birth canal and come in contact with fluid that is infected with bacteria.
Similarly, feline herpesvirus is a contagious virus transmitted by direct contact of infected fluids. Droplets can be passed on to newborn kittens from an infected cat. Therefore, it’s important to keep all cats other than the newborn kittens’ mother away from them.
Although all cats are susceptible to FHV, newborn kittens are fragile; their immature immune system increases their likelihood of infection. Crowded, unclean, and/or stressful living conditions contribute to infection as well.
Ocular discharge can also be caused by a congenital abnormality that causes pain and damage to the cornea.
Signs of Eye Infections in Newborn Kittens
Kittens can be infected underneath their closed eyelids or after their eyelids are open, but in general, eye infections are noticed when a kitten is between 7–14 days old.
Signs of eye infections in newborn kittens whose eyes are still closed or who are less than 14 days old include:
Sneezing or nasal discharge
Clear or thick pus or discharge seeping out from under the eyelid
Crust around the eyelid
Sores on the eyelid
Collapsed or deflated eye
Signs in kittens whose eyes are open or who are 15 days old or older include:
The eyelid remaining closed beyond 14 days old
Sneezing or nasal discharge
Swelling and redness in and around the eyes
Clear or thick pus or discharge
Crust on or around the eyelid
Eyelid that seems stuck to the eye
Collapsed or deflated eye
How Veterinarians Diagnose Eye Infections in Newborn Kittens
Diagnosis is largely based on clinical signs of infection. The vet will do a thorough physical exam of the kitten as well as of the mother to evaluate her overall health.
During this exam, your vet will use warm water to gently open the kitten’s eyes to do an ophthalmic (eye) exam. Once opened, the eyes will be carefully flushed and a fluorescein dye (a diagnostic contrast agent) will be applied to the cornea. This yellowish-green fluorescent stain is absorbed into and illuminates any layers of the cornea that are injured, making any injuries or ulcers visible.
If your kitten’s eyes are still closed, having the veterinarian open the eyes prematurely does not hurt or damage them.
Additionally, samples of eye discharge and discharge from the mother’s birth canal may be sent out to a lab for bacterial culture/susceptibility testing. With this, specific bacteria can be identified to help guide treatment options.
Treatment of Eye Infections in Newborn Kittens
Because serious and permanent damage—including dry eye, corneal scarring, blindness, and rupture of the eye itself—can occur in eyes that aren’t treated, it’s important to seek veterinary care for both kitten and the mother cat if you notice any signs. Specifically, in kittens with feline herpesvirus, the conjunctiva could adhere to the cornea and prevent the eye from moving properly. This results in impaired vision, loss of function, and damaged tear production.
Because the discharge can permanently damage the cornea, your veterinarian will gently open the eyes to clean and flush out the discharge. Once clean, they’ll be able to evaluate the eye, and depending on their findings, they may prescribe a topical broad-spectrum antibiotic. If FHV is suspected, a topical antiviral may also be used.
For home care, the veterinarian will show you how to massage the eye gently with a warm compress, focusing on moving the discharge toward the inner corner of the eye (medial canthus) to keep the eyes clean. Topical broad spectrum eye drops and topical antiviral eye drops may also be recommended at home.
If a bacterial culture was done, treatment is based on which antibiotic is most effective for the identified bacteria strain.
If a congenital eyelid abnormality is the underlying cause of the ocular discharge, surgery to correct the abnormality is determined depending on the severity.
Recovery and Management of Eye Infections in Newborn Kittens
Because the infection is potentially contagious, it’s best to keep the kitten and the litter isolated from other cats in the household until all kitties are fully recovered and clear of infection.
Typical treatment can last up to four weeks, and it’s critical to follow your veterinarian’s instructions during this time, paying close attention to maintaining a clean environment where your cat can comfortably recover.
Featured Image: iStock.com/Alper Akca
Center VV. Neonatal Ophthalmia and Other Eye Infections in Puppies and Kittens. Veterinary Vision Center. Published January 21, 2021.
Kitten Eye Infection | Greensboro Emergency & Specialist Vets. www.greensboro.carolinavet.com.
Paul E. Miller DVM. Waltham/OSU Symposium, Small Animal Ophthalmology, 2001. VINcom. Published online March 30, 2015.
Neonatal Ophthalmia (Feline). VINcyclopedia of Diseases. Ralph Harmor DVM, MS, DACVO; Renee Carter DVM, DACVO November 7, 2015
Veterinary Ophthalmology: Volume II, Sixth Edition. 2021 John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Chapter 28, Feline Ophthalmology, pp. 1665-1668.
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