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Eye Care in Kittens

By: Dr. Nicholas Dodman

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Your mother must have told you, "Never rub your eyes, except with your elbows." And she might well have added, "And never put anything in your eyes unless told to by a doctor." Well, pretty much the same holds true for kittens. It's a really bad idea to go poking around a kitten's eyes unless you know what you're doing, and anyway, in most instances, it's unnecessary.

Kittens' eyes do not open for a week or more after birth. That's normal. When they do open, mom usually takes care of keeping them clean until the kittens can clean themselves properly.

So what does the kitten's owner need to do? Usually nothing, as it turns out. However, prevention of problems is a smart move on the owner's part. All kittens should be vaccinated against the common viral diseases, including ones that can affect their eyes. In addition, trauma caused by inter-kitten fighting, flying objects, and chemicals should be avoided as far as possible.

Tips for Eye Safety

  • When shampooing your kitten or cat, for whatever reason, take care to keep the shampoo away from the eyes. Tearless shampoos are best or, under your veterinarian's direction, apply a bland ophthalmic ointment to protect your kitten's eyes during shampooing.

  • When spraying noxious chemicals around the house (e.g. insect sprays), keep the kitten out of the room you are spraying in, for its own protection.

  • Avoid using sticks or other sharp projectiles in play.

  • Keep invasive children away from young kittens.

    Eye Examination

    It makes good sense to take every new young kitten to a veterinarian and, amongst other things, to have him examine the kitten's eyes. If a problem exists, once you know what's going on, you can take the necessary action, which may be definitive or simply involve specific daily management measures. If your kitten has the all clear from the veterinarian (and/or a veterinary ophthalmologist), all you have to do is to protect your kitten's eyes from unnecessary physical insults while ensuring regular vaccination and protection from overt exposure to other infected cats.

    Signs of Healthy Eyes

  • Their being wide open when the kitten is fully awake (i.e. not squinting).
  • The surface of the eye (cornea) is moist and glistening.
  • The conjunctiva (pink membranes surrounding the eye) is pink and healthy looking.
  • The pupil (the dark area in the center of the eye) constricts to a slit in sunlight and dilates in dim light.
  • There are no accumulations of mucous or other discharges in the "corner of the eye."
  • There are no unusual swellings in or around the eyelids.

    Signs of Irritated or Damaged Eyes

  • Squinting, blinking, or tearing excessively.
  • Ocular discharge.
  • Pawing the eyes.
  • Restlessness and/or crying.
  • Photophobia (literally, frightened of and avoiding bright light)

    *Note: If only one eye is affected, the signs of squinting, tearing, or ocular discharge will be confined to that eye.

    Keeping Weepy Eyes Clean

    When ocular discharge plagues your kitten's eyes, and mom cat is not around, it may be necessary to help keep the kitten's eyes clear of "goopy stuff" by means of some masterly intervention. Preferably, obtain some sterile saline solution from you vet and gently wipe around the kitten's eyes with moistened cotton pledgets as often as necessary, which is sometimes several times a day. If your veterinarian determines that an infection is present, and medication must be applied, make sure not to touch the delicate cornea with the applicator.

    Common Eye Problems

    Congenital Problems. Some breeds of cat do have innate ocular problems. Persians, for example, may have eye problems secondary to the topography of their flat faces. In this situation, excessive skin folds can cause hair to drag across the surface of the delicate cornea, causing chronic irritation and thus ocular discharge. In addition, the exposed nature of the cornea (because of the bulbous protruding eyes) predisposes to keratitis (infection of the cornea). Persians may also have kinked and thus blocked tear ducts. Your vet can advise how to tackle or live with this problem. Siamese cats very often have obvious strabismus (squint) though their eyesight is fine. Many also display nystagmus (eyes flicking back and forth) as a result of some "crossed wires" in their neurological circuitry. Again, this does not seem to cause clinical problems with their vision.

    Trauma. Frequently caused by damage by another cat's claws, trauma to the eyeball can lead to infection and/or ulceration. Squinting, photophobia, and ocular discharge are the result.

    Infection. If you notice a discharge from one or both of your kitten's eyes, you should take note of the nature of the discharge. Is it clear or cloudy, grayish or yellowish, and is it from one or both eyes? Then call your local veterinarian and ask for guidance. Tell him (or her) what you have observed, accurately transmitting the nature of the problem. In all likelihood, he will require you to bring the kitten to his office. There he will examine its eyes to assess the nature and extent of the problem. He may employ an ophthalmoscope to help him visualize things in more detail. In addition, he may flush your kitten's eyes with sterile saline to remove superficial debris and may apply a special dye to check for ulcers. He will also inspect your kitten's eyelids for signs of trouble there. If he finds nothing grossly to account for the problem, he may contemplate a course of antibiotics on the assumption that the eye problem involves a component of bacterial infection. He will also check your kitten's general health while you are in the clinic, because some systemic diseases lead to ocular problems. Common problems include cat 'flu or chlamydial infection, both of which cause purulent ocular discharge, and general debility, which may cause the kitten's "third eyelid" to be pulled across the eyeball like a pink blanket.

    Lumps and Bumps. It is extremely unlikely for a new kitten to have a tumor of its eye or eyelids. When a swelling exists, abscessation is far more likely, especially if your kitten has been allowed outside. If any swellings are present around the kitten's eyes, your veterinarian will diagnose the problem and explain treatment options.

    Allergies. Some kittens develop skin allergies as they get older. Allergies sometimes affect the skin around the eyes. A kitten with allergies that paws at or around its eyes may cause the conjunctivae to become reddened. The solution to this problem is to treat the allergy. Again, your veterinarian can advise.

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