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What causes eye infections in dogs?

dog with an eye infection

A dog eye infection can have various causes, from bacteria to irritants, such as smoke and soap, to an eye injury. 

Dog eye boogers and eye gunk are usually not a cause for concern. Excessive eye discharge, however, can be an early warning sign of an infection or other serious condition that should be evaluated by a professional.

Types of eye infections in dogs

Like humans, dogs can experience a variety of eye infections and problems. Some of the most prominent eye infections a dog may experience include:

  • Conjunctivitis, or pink eye, caused by bacterial or viral infections. Allergic conjunctivitis can also occur in canines.  

  • Uveitis, an inflammation that affects the iris, ciliary body (a part of the eye behind the iris) and choroid (tissue behind the iris).

  • Severe corneal inflammation.

  • Eyelid or tear gland problems that cause infection.

What causes eye infections in dogs?

A number of things can cause or trigger an infection in your dog’s eyes. These can range from eye irritants to parasites. Specific causes may include:

  • Trauma or injury.

  • Foreign objects such as grass, dirt, debris or your dog’s own fur.

  • Viruses including herpes, hepatitis, canine distemper and influenza.

  • Fungus and parasites.

  • Bacteria and certain tick-borne diseases.

  • Eye allergies and irritants such as soap or smoke.

  • Corneal abrasion (scratch on the eye).

If your dog suffers an injury near the eyes, pay close attention to the area for a few days following the incident.

Is dog eye discharge a sign of an infection?

Some dog eye gunk or eye discharge (also called ocular discharge) is normal — particularly watery and clear mucus or a small amount of greenish mucus in the inside corner of the eyes. 

It is also normal for dogs to regularly have discharge that has dried and crusted over in the corner of the eye, especially during periods of dry, windy weather. This can usually be removed by wiping the area gently with a clean towel or warm, damp washcloth.

An infection or serious condition may be present, and it is best to contact a veterinarian if:

  • The discharge appears especially thick in texture, is pus-like or turns yellow or green.

  • The tissue around the eye (the conjunctiva) appears to be swollen or inflamed.

  • The white part of the eye (the sclera) appears to be swollen or inflamed.

  • The cornea appears cloudy or bluish-gray. 

Symptoms of dog eye infections

Particularly thick, watery or foul-smelling eye discharge can be a sign of an infection, but this is not the only sign to look for. Take note if your dog experiences the following symptoms with or without eye discharge.

  • Redness of the conjunctiva or sclera

  • Discomfort

  • Itching or pawing at the eye

  • Holding the eye closed

  • Sensitivity to light

  • Excessive blinking

  • Squinting

Tell your veterinarian about any problems your dog seems to experience. The more information your vet has, the better they can diagnose your pet’s condition.  

Treatment

Treatment may vary for each case. Mild eye discharge is typically manageable at home, but if you suspect an infection is present, contact your veterinarian for the proper next steps.

  • Antibiotic ointment or eye drops for dogs are used to treat infections such as bacterial conjunctivitis.

  • Steroid eye drops may be prescribed to treat viral conjunctivitis or allergies in your dog. Although most viruses cannot be cured, steroids can help keep your dog’s eyes clean and make her more comfortable while she’s healing.  

  • Artificial tears can be used to treat allergies and allergic conjunctivitis. You can also use artificial tears to keep the eyes clean of debris and soothe particularly dry eyes.

  • Cold compresses can help ease discomfort that your dog is experiencing during eye infections and other eye-related problems.

Your veterinarian may suggest a systemic (whole body) approach to treating your dog’s condition, depending on the type and severity of the infection. In such cases, both topical and oral medications may be prescribed.

How to give your dog eye medication

Applying topical medicine properly is crucial in your dog’s healing process. Always follow the directions given on the packaging as well as the instructions (if any) given by your veterinarian.

How to apply dog eye drops 

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after giving your dog eye drops.

  2. Wet a washcloth with warm water and use it to gently clean the area around your dog’s eye.

  3. Cradle your dog’s head (or have a trusted assistant do so).

  4. Hold the medicine bottle with your dominant thumb and index finger, and pull down your dog’s eyelid with your other thumb. You can use the rest of your fingers on that hand to support your dog’s jaw.

  5. Hold the bottle close to the eye, but be careful not to touch it. Aim for the center of the eye and squeeze in the prescribed amount.

  6. Your dog will naturally blink a few times afterward. This will help spread the medicine across the surface of the eye.

How to apply dog eye ointment

  1. Wash your hands thoroughly before and after giving your dog eye ointment.

  2. Wet a washcloth with warm water and use it to gently clean the area around your dog’s eye.

  3. Cradle your dog’s head (or have a trusted assistant do so).

  4. Hold the tube of ointment using your dominant thumb and index finger, and pull down your dog’s eyelid with your other thumb. You can use the rest of your fingers on that hand to support your dog’s jaw.

  5. Squeeze the prescribed amount of ointment (many vets recommend about ¼") onto the inner edge of your dog’s lower eyelid. Be careful not to touch the tube to the eye.

  6. Your dog will naturally blink a few times afterward, and the ointment should melt from the warmth of the eye. This will help spread the medicine across the surface of the eye. Ointment may naturally gather in the corners of the eye after it is applied and is nothing to worry about.

Be sure to give your pet lots of praise before, during and after the process. (And give them a treat when it’s done!) Encouragement is key to making everything run smoothly for both the pet and pet parent. 

Preventing eye infections in your dog

Like humans, dogs’ eyes are sensitive and should be cared for regularly. Be sure to inspect your pet’s eyes every day for cleanliness and alert your veterinarian if you notice anything odd or unusual.

Other things you can do to keep your dog’s eyes clean and protected from infection include:

  • Trimming the hair around your dog’s eyes.

  • Trimming your dog’s nails to prevent eye scratches.

  • Inspecting your dog’s eyes daily for abnormalities.

  • Gently cleaning the eyes with a washcloth or paper towel.

  • Scheduling regular appointments with your veterinarian to help keep your dog in good health and prevent problems from occurring.

SEE RELATED: Eye discharge in cats

Other eye conditions in dogs

In addition to infections, dogs can experience certain eye conditions that require monitoring and treatment. This can include:

Some dogs may be more susceptible to infections and conditions of the eye. See a veterinarian if you have any concerns about your dog’s eye health, and be sure to stay up to date on regular checkups to prevent various health problems.

SEE RELATED: How good is a dog’s vision?

Dog eye infections: Symptoms, causes & treatment. American Kennel Club. January 2018.

Top eye problems for dogs. ASPCA Pet Health Insurance. Accessed April 2021.

Can dogs get pink eye? ASPCA Pet Health Insurance. Accessed April 2021.

Applying eye drops to dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals. Accessed April 2021.

Applying eye ointments to dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals. Accessed April 2021.

Canine distemper. American Veterinary Medical Association. Accessed April 2021.

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