Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye) in Dogs
Conjunctivitis, sometimes informally referred to as “pink eye,” is an irritation or inflammation of the conjunctiva, the soft tissue that lines the inside of the eyelids and the white portion of the eye. Just like people, dogs can develop conjunctivitis at any stage of their lives. Conjunctivitis can occur in both eyes or just one eye. If the cause of conjunctivitis is infectious, it may start in one eye and spread to the other.
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Certain breeds are more prone to contracting conjunctivitis because their facial features leave them susceptible to debris and airborne irritants:
Keep in mind that any dog, regardless of breed, can develop conjunctivitis.
Signs and Symptoms of Conjunctivitis in Dogs
When it comes to conjunctivitis, one of the most common telltale signs is red or bloodshot eyes. Other symptoms vary depending on the severity of the inflammation, but may include the following:
Excessive blinking or squinting
Increased discharge from the eye (clear, white, yellow, or green)
Swelling/puffiness around the eyelids
Eyelids that stick together
Rubbing the eyes (either with paws, or along the floor or furniture)
At the first sign of any visible eye issue, call your veterinarian. If conjunctivitis becomes severe, it can cause permanent damage to the cornea. This is not a condition that will go away on its own, so medical treatment is necessary.
How Did My Dog Get Conjunctivitis?
There are various possible causes for conjunctivitis, and the cause will dictate treatment.
Allergies: May be seasonal, and not contagious.
Virus: If caused by a viral infection, conjunctivitis can spread easily and take up to three weeks to recover from.
Bacteria: If caused by a bacterial infection, conjunctivitis may spread.
Injury: Caused by a foreign object, debris, or some kind of physical trauma.
Dry eye: Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), also known as canine dry eye, impairs a dog’s natural ability to produce tears that keep the eyes properly lubricated.
Dogs can develop conjunctivitis in numerous ways, which makes it challenging to prevent. Allergens, bacteria, and viruses are all around, so it’s not an uncommon issue.
Diagnosing Conjunctivitis in Dogs
Conjunctivitis can be either infectious or non-infectious.
One of the first steps in diagnosing conjunctivitis is a physical examination. If the dog is blinking or squinting a lot as a result of the infection, an anesthetic eye drop may be administered to numb the eye and make the examination more tolerable. The veterinarian will check for any foreign objects, along with contributing factors like hair rubbing on the eye, poor eyelid conformation, and patterns or trends that might be contributing to chronic conjunctivitis.
Conjunctivitis can be a secondary condition to another type of illness, such as a respiratory tract infection. In cases like this, both conditions would be treated.
In some cases, conjunctivitis may be caused by a more severe problem like corneal ulcers. Making a definitive diagnosis requires spreading an orange dye called fluorescein on the eye’s surface to render scratches, ulcers, and foreign material visible under a blue light.
A full eye examination must be performed before treatment is prescribed, because different causes for conjunctivitis require different treatments.
Treating Your Dog for Conjunctivitis
An undiagnosed eye condition should never be treated without instructions from a veterinarian. Human eye drops and other medications should not be administered, because they can aggravate the condition or even cause permanent damage to your dog’s eye.
The specific course of treatment will be determined by the cause of your dog’s conjunctivitis. Common treatment recommendations include:
Steroid eye drops
Antihistamines (oral or eye drops)
Steroid eye drops
Antibiotic eye drops or ointment
Steroid eye drops
Medication (Note: Conjunctivitis medication has the potential to worsen an injury to the cornea, and can even cause blindness. Your veterinarian will determine if there is corneal damage and advise on the best way to proceed.)
Surgery (if medication is not an option or has not been successful)
Regardless of the underlying cause, your veterinarian may recommend that your dog wear an Elizabethan collar until the conjunctivitis has resolved. Although it may seem like a nuisance, an E-collar will prevent your dog from making his eyes worse by rubbing or scratching.
A dog’s owner can apply prescribed eye drops at home. Here’s how:
Gently clean the area around the eye.
Hold the dog close to your body so he cannot squirm free. (Depending on the dog’s size and his level of comfort, you may require assistance.)
Wrap your arm around the dog’s shoulder and use your arm to tilt his chin upward, so his eyes are looking up. With that same hand, gently pull the dog’s lower eyelid down to create a little pouch below the eyeball.
Administer the prescribed number of drops. Do not let the tip of the bottle touch the eye. If possible, rest the hand holding the bottle against your dog’s head. That way, if your dog moves his head, your hand will move with him, lessening your chances of accidentally poking him in the eye.
After the drops are in, release your grip. The dog’s natural movement and blinking will help spread the medication evenly over the eye.
If your dog has been prescribed more than one topical eye medication, allow at least five minutes between administration of eye medication. Ointments should always be applied last.
Once eye drops are administered, your dog should feel some relief relatively soon. The healing process begins within a few days. Full recovery time varies but can take up to two or three weeks.
Is There a Cure for Conjunctivitis?
Conjunctivitis will almost always resolve with appropriate treatment. However, allergic conjunctivitis may recur, and—just as people can get “colds” more than once—dogs can develop infectious conjunctivitis multiple times.
Is Conjunctivitis Contagious for Humans and Other Pets?
Non-infectious conjunctivitis (e.g., from an injury or allergies) is not contagious. However, if the conjunctivitis is the result of a virus or bacterial infection, it has the potential to be transmitted from one dog to another. Additionally, some types of canine conjunctivitis (usually bacterial) can potentially be passed to humans, although this is extremely uncommon.
It’s important for anyone handling an infected dog to wash their hands thoroughly to prevent the infection from spreading to other animals or themselves. Avoid touching your eye or face area when you’ve been near an infected dog. Should you develop signs of an eye infection, be sure to contact your physician immediately.
What Is the Cost for Treating Conjunctivitis?
The cost to treat conjunctivitis includes the charge for an office visit to the vet as well as the diagnostic tests and medications necessary to treat the infection. As conjunctivitis is a common ailment for dogs, the cost to treat it shouldn’t be astronomical, but may vary depending on factors like geographical location. (Bigger cities have a higher cost of living in general, which extends to animal care.) Recurrent or chronic conditions—such as allergies or “dry eye”—may be more expensive to treat, as frequent or long-term medications may be needed.
Don’t try to treat conjunctivitis without consulting a veterinarian first. The vet will prescribe the most effective treatment based on the cause of the conjunctivitis.
Recovery and Management of Conjunctivitis in Dogs
Proper management of your dog’s conjunctivitis will depend on the root cause of the underlying condition. If it’s allergen-based, it can be helpful to prevent the dog from coming into contact with whatever is causing the reaction. (It can be difficult to identify on your own, so further testing by your veterinarian may be necessary.)
Keep your dog away from dusty, dry, and dirty areas while he’s recovering, and continuously monitor his symptoms.
As mentioned above, an E-collar or cone may be needed to help protect your dog’s eyes from self-trauma during the healing stage.
Medication, whether topical or oral, should be administered exactly as prescribed, even if it appears the symptoms are clearing up.
Conjunctivitis is generally a very treatable condition that most dogs recover from, as long as diagnosis and treatment occur before the disease has a chance to progress. Early detection and proper follow-up care are vital.
Preventing Conjunctivitis in Dogs
Some causes of conjunctivitis are avoidable. For instance, minimizing exposure to airborne irritants like smoke, perfumes, and even dust can help diminish allergy-related conjunctivitis, while monitoring dogs that are playing together can reduce the risk of trauma to the eye. Keep your dog current on vaccinations against diseases that can cause conjunctivitis (e.g., canine distemper).
To prevent the spread of conjunctivitis, keep your infected dog away from other animals until he’s given a clean bill of health.
If your dog is around other animals consistently, it’s a good idea to wipe down his paws and face each time he comes home. Another good habit is to wash your hands after touching a dog’s face, bowls, and toys: good overall hygiene can help prevent infections.
Is There a Vaccine for Conjunctivitis?
There is no vaccine for conjunctivitis, although you should keep your dog current on vaccinations for diseases that can cause conjunctivitis, like canine distemper.
Certain precautions can help minimize the risk of infection. Being aware of the causes and triggers of conjunctivitis, and knowing what signs and symptoms to look for, will play a large part in keeping your dog’s eyes healthy.