Cat Eye Problems

Published Oct. 22, 2021
close-up of an orange cat with green eyes

Some cat eye diseases can be readily diagnosed and treated, while others are more challenging and may even require the input of a cat eye specialist, known as a veterinary ophthalmologist.

This article provides a short overview of some of the eye conditions that might affect your kitty and how concerned you need to be about seeking treatment.

Common Eye Problems in Cats

There are a variety of conditions that can affect your cat’s eyes, but some are more common than others. Here’s a breakdown of the most common eye issues in cats.

Cat Eye Infections

The most common eye infections in cats tend to be viral infections. Unfortunately, cats have many of these over the course of their lifetime—often brought on by stress or other diseases. Cat eye infections can present as “one and done” problems, but in many cases, the long-term outlook is not that simple.

Cats with a history of viral eye infections should see a veterinarian within a few days after you see signs. Cats with no history of infections should be seen as soon as possible—preferably, within 24 hours.

Conjunctivitis/Pink Eye in Cats

Conjunctivitis in cats is more of a symptom than a disease. It occurs when the tissues surrounding the eye become inflamed and irritated.

A wide variety of conditions can cause pink eye in cats, so it can be difficult to determine the underlying cause. In some cases, the conjunctiva (the tissue surrounding the eye) can be so swollen that it is not even possible for you to see your cat’s eye itself!

Although anti-inflammatory medications may reduce the swelling of the conjunctiva, it often takes additional testing and examination to identify what caused the inflammation.

Cats with conjunctivitis should be seen by a veterinarian within 24 hours.

Corneal Ulcers in Cats

Corneal ulcers are injuries to the clear surface of a cat’s eye, more commonly known as scratches on the cornea. Cats with ulcers will often squint, seem uncomfortable when the lighting is too bright, and have a red/inflamed eye, and they will sometimes have drainage from their eye.

Corneal ulcers can become severe quickly if they become infected, so have your cat examined quickly if you suspect they have a corneal ulcer.

Retinal Issues in Cats

Retinal issues are very common in cats and most frequently occur as a result of other health problems that cause high blood pressure, such as hyperthyroidism and kidney disease.

High blood pressure can lead to ruptures of the small blood vessels in the retina, which then can cause the retina to detach and result in blindness. Hypertensive retinopathy (blood vessel damage because of high blood pressure) is one of the most common problems seen in older cats with eye problems.

The most common retinal symptom is when the cat seems to suddenly go blind, and their pupils look dilated. If you see this, seek treatment immediately to attempt to save your cat’s vision. If treatment is delayed even a few hours, the resulting blindness is permanent.

Irritated/Red Eyes in Cats

This is more of a symptom than a condition; many conditions will present with irritated and red eyes. 

Any condition that causes eye irritation should be evaluated by a veterinarian promptly.

Cat Squinting

Squinting is also a symptom of eye disease. Whenever an eye is painful or inflamed, cats tend to squint.

 If your cat squints for more than a few hours, it’s time to schedule an appointment with your vet.

Glassy Eyes in Cats

Glassy eyes are a sign of excessive tearing, which can occur when a cat’s eye is inflamed or in pain.

Take your cat to the vet if their eyes are glassy or tearing up.

Goopy Eyes/Discharge in Cats

A small amount of cat eye discharge in the corner closest to your cat’s nose is normal as long as it is a minimal amount. It’s usually brown in color, and only slightly moist or dried. 

Often, this is confused with dried blood. However, there may be a problem if there is a larger amount of discharge in your cat’s eyes and it is thick, creamy, or coming from areas other than the corner. This is particularly true if there are other signs of eye disease, such as squinting, inflammation, or pain.

Cat eye discharge should be examined within a day or two by a vet—sooner if it comes with any additional symptoms.

Swollen Eyes or Tear Ducts in Cats

Severe inflammation in the conjunctiva (the tissues around the eye) can occasionally block a cat’s tear duct, causing excessive eye tearing. The vet will need to treat the cause of the conjunctivitis appropriately, which will help unblock the tear duct.

If your cat is having a lot of tearing or swelling around the eye, go see the vet.

Cloudy Eyes in Cats

Cloudy eyes can be a serious symptom of cat eye disease—particularly when the clouding is on the cornea (the outer surface of the eye).

When the cornea gets injured, such as from a scratch or ulcer, swelling occurs, and you will see a cloudy patch in your cat’s eye. In some cases, the entire cornea may appear cloudy.

Get any eye cloudiness examined by a vet as soon as possible.

Third Eyelid Visible in Cats

The “third eyelid” is a small gland in the lower corner of the eye closest to the nose. It’s normally completely hidden from view except when a cat gets a little sleepy.

The third eyelid should retract entirely when your cat is fully awake and alert. If it doesn’t—whether it is in one eye or both—your cat has Horner’s syndrome, which can be a sign of disease.

If it only happens on occasion or disappears again when your cat is alert, you can probably monitor it at home. If it persists, schedule an appointment with your vet within a few days.

Less Common Cat Eye Issues

These are some of the less commonly seen cat eye problems.

Cherry Eye in Cats

Fortunately, cherry eye is not as common in cats as it is in some breeds of dogs. Cherry eye is the tendency for a small gland in the eye to stick out or move out of its normal position, resulting in a small, inflamed red “cherry” in the corner of the eye nearest the nose.

These will sometimes resolve with anti-inflammatory medications, but some will need surgery. Often, it is a cosmetic problem that can be left alone with no ill effects.

You can usually monitor your kitty’s cherry eye at home, but call your vet first to be safe.

Glaucoma in Cats

Glaucoma in cats is a condition that causes more pressure in the eyes, which can result in vision loss over time. If the pressure is very high, a cat can lose their vision very rapidly, so glaucoma is considered an emergency.

Fortunately, glaucoma is not very common in cats, but if you suspect your cat has it, seek professional treatment immediately.

Ectropion in Cats

Ectropion is not very common in cats, but it is characterized by an outward rolling of the eyelid. When the eyelid rolls outward, it exposes the inner conjunctiva. This is usually corrected surgically and is not considered urgent.

This is not a condition that you’re likely to notice as a pet parent, but if you think there is something wrong with your cat’s eye, it probably should be seen sooner rather than later. 

Entropion in Cats

Although it sounds similar to ectropion, entropion in cats is the opposite. It occurs when the eyelid rolls inward so the hair on the eyelid rubs the eye, causing irritation and ulcers. This can be very painful for your cat.

Sometimes, it’s the result of other eye conditions, but it can also happen on its own. Treatment consists of surgically repairing the eyelid as well as determining what other conditions, if any, are causing the entropion.

If you suspect your cat has entropion, take them to the vet.

Cataracts in Cats

Cataracts form when the lens of a cat’s eye thickens, creating a marble-like “clouding” inside their eye. This is different from clouding of the cornea, where you can’t even see into the eye.

Cataracts are not as common in cats as in dogs. There are a number of reasons why cats develop cataracts, including genetics, age, and other diseases, such as diabetes.

Although cataracts in cats can be surgically treated, vets will usually just monitor their progress. Thick cataracts prevent your cat from being able to see, leaving your cat blind. However, because this usually happens slowly over time, most cats adjust to this condition.

Any cloudiness of the eye should be seen by a veterinarian as soon as possible to determine the underlying reason.

Iris Melanoma in Cats

Iris melanoma is a rare but severe condition in cats where the iris (the colored portion of the eye) develops a growth. Often, it begins with pigment changes that may not be noticed, but over time, it gets larger and more aggressive.

These masses can potentially spread from the cat’s eye by travelling down the nerve that leads to the eye, causing issues in other areas of the body, such as the brain.

Take your cat to the vet immediately if you see any swelling or color changes in the iris.

Cat Eye Allergies

Though they are frequently blamed for eye problems in cats, allergies are not actually a common cause of disease.

Usually, inflammation in the tissues around a cat’s eye (conjunctivitis) is caused by other issues, such as viral infections, rather than simple allergies.

Take your cat to the vet for an exam to assess the true underlying cause of the inflammation.

Dry Eyes in Cats

Also known as keratoconjunctivitis sicca (or KCS), dry eye in cats is a condition in which the body doesn’t produce enough tears. This results in dry eye tissue—especially the cornea.

When a cat’s cornea becomes too dry, it will sometimes go on to develop severe ulcerations. Fortunately, this is much more common in dogs than in cats, and it is treatable in both species.

If you suspect that your cat has dry eye, take them to the vet as soon as possible. Your vet will put tear strips into your cat’s eye and measure the amount of tears produced over time for a diagnosis.

Growth/Lump on a Cat’s Eyelid

Unlike in dogs, lumps and bumps on the eyelids are not common in cats. These are most commonly benign and slow growing.

However, you should still take your cat to the vet within a few days—particularly if the bump grows/changes, causes inflammation in the eye, has any pigment to it, or seems to bother your cat.

Cat Eye Problems FAQs

How can I tell if my cat has eye problems?

If your cat is holding one eye shut, avoiding light, squinting, pawing at their eye, or seems to have an excessive amount of eye discharge, there is likely an underlying problem. Take your cat to the vet as soon as possible.

Do cat eye infections go away on their own?

Cat eye infections sometimes occur repeatedly and are most commonly caused by viruses. Infections often wax and wane over time, appearing to improve or go away, only to come back again later. Although they may appear to go away on their own, infections should always be conclusively diagnosed and appropriately treated by your veterinarian.

What can you do for a cat’s irritated eye?

Irritated eyes should always be examined by a veterinarian, but while you are waiting for your appointment, it is usually safe to gently flush your cat’s eyes with a saline solution and wipe away any discharge.

Keeping your cat in a reasonably dark area will likely also help to keep their eye more comfortable. If your cat is pawing at their eye, put an Elizabethan collar on them, if you have one, to help prevent more damage from being done.

As a rule of thumb, however, cat eye problems should be seen by a veterinarian sooner rather than later because they can quickly worsen and become difficult to reverse.

Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra C. Mitchell, DVM, DABVP


Sandra Mitchell is a 1995 graduate of the New York State College of Veterinary Medicine. Since graduation, she has worked in many fields...

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