How to Treat a Dog Eye Infection (the Right Way)

Published December 2, 2021
Dog grooming: eyedropper for a corgi

If your dog is winking their eye at you, they're probably not just being friendly. Squinting, frequent blinking, and pawing at the face are all signs that your pet could have pink eye. Discover the common causes of dog eye infections and ways you can help provide your pet with relief.

What are Dog Eye Infections?

Dog eye infections, also known as conjunctivitis or "pink eye," are a common eye condition seen in dogs. This disorder is characterized by inflammation of the conjunctiva, which are the tissues that line the eyelids. These membranes help lubricate the eye and serve as a protective barrier to keep bacteria and debris out. However, the conjunctiva itself can become irritated and inflamed. This can occur in just one eye or both simultaneously. Dog eye infections can be particularly painful, so your pet will likely exhibit signs of discomfort early on.

Signs and Symptoms

Male 4 year old Chocolate Labrador squinting

Although you might see visible redness and swelling of the conjunctiva tissues, there are several common signs you should watch for.

  • Pawing at the eye
  • Rubbing the eye on the ground
  • Squinting
  • Keeping one or both eyes closed
  • Excessive blinking
  • Redness
  • Swelling
  • Crusty eyes
  • Discharge (clear, mucoid, yellow, or green)

Causes of Eye Infections in Dogs

There are several reasons a dog could develop conjunctivitis. The following are some of the most common causes.

  • Allergies. Environmental or seasonal allergies from exposure to dust, pollen, and smoke, among other irritants, can trigger allergic conjunctivitis in dogs. This is one of the primary causes of eye irritation in dogs.
  • Bacterial infections. Injections caused by bacteria within the eye are typically related to an underlying issue.
  • Viral infections. Viruses like upper respiratory infections, canine influenza, and canine distemper often present with ocular discharge and infection. Other accompanying signs include sneezing, nasal discharge, lethargy, fever, or coughing.
  • Dry eye. Keratoconjunctivitis sicca (KCS), also known as dry eye, is a condition characterized by interrupted tear production. Without tears to lubricate the conjunctiva, conjunctivitis can occur.
  • Tumors of the eye. Growths within the conjunctiva tissue can lead to inflammation, as can eye or eyelid tumors that rub up against the conjunctiva.
  • Eyelid or eyelash abnormalities. Congenital abnormalities, such as distichiasis, entropion, and ectopic cilia, involve improperly placed or oriented eyelashes that can result in damage to the eye.
  • Trauma to the eye. A scratch on the eye caused by something like a branch, another animal's claw, or one that is self-inflicted, can lead to inflammatory conjunctivitis.
  • Foreign material in the eye. Things like grass, seeds, dirt, sprinters, and thorns can enter the eye, bringing bacteria along with them. The rubbing of foreign objects on the conjunctiva can also cause inflammation.

Are Canine Eye Infections Contagious?

The majority of canine conjunctivitis cases are not contagious. Eye infections as a result of allergies, dry eye, anatomical issues, trauma, or foreign material generally cannot be transmitted to another individual. However, viral and bacterial conjunctivitis are typically infectious. Transmission happens through contact with infected body fluids, such as nasal and eye discharge. Until you know for sure the underlying cause of your dog's pink eye, it can be beneficial to keep them separated from other dogs.

Some rare types of bacterial conjunctivitis are not only infectious to other dogs, but they can be passed to humans, as well. Always use adequate hygiene when treating your dog's eye to prevent spreading infections.

Dog with eye problem, conjunctivitis

Treating Conjunctivitis in Dogs

Treatment can vary based on the root cause of the conjunctivitis. In general, the first step is to reduce the inflammation of the eye, followed by (or along with) addressing any underlying cause. All eye treatments should be done under the guidance of a veterinarian, but there are a few methods you can use to support your dog in the meantime.

Use the Cone of Shame

Animals can easily create abrasions on the cornea, known as corneal ulcers, by pawing, rubbing, or scratching at an uncomfortable eye. Placing a cone on your dog won't treat the infection, but it can help prevent further damage. Other types of protective eyewear, such as goggles or visors, can be used if your dog is compliant.

Keep the Eye Clean

You can make your dog more comfortable by cleaning the eye. With a wet washcloth, gently remove any discharge. Use only water and do not touch the eye itself. A cool (not cold) compress on the outside of the eye can make your pet more comfortable. Additionally, you can use an artificial tears product to keep the eye lubricated and moist.

Natural Remedies

At-home remedies may provide your pet with relief. Some veterinarians suggest using a few drops of cooled black tea in the eye for its antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties. Euphrasia, also known as Eyebright, is an herb that is sometimes used as a dietary supplement for eye health. Although there is limited research on its use in dogs, some veterinarians suggest using it for conjunctivitis.

There are both oral formulas and topical formulas that go directly into the eye. If given incorrectly, it can have toxic effects. Euphrasia may not be safe for use in dogs who take insulin or have certain conditions, so always check with your vet before using it. If your dog's eye doesn't appear to be improving with natural remedies, prescription solutions may be necessary.

Prescription Drops or Ointments

Woman instills a therapeutic drop in the eyes of a dog

Unfortunately, there's no single, standard eye drop that will resolve conjunctivitis. Depending on the type of infection, various dog-safe topical solutions may be recommended. You'll have to administer these at home as directed for several days, which may require dosing two or three times per day. Never use human products in or around your dog's eye without guidance from your veterinarian.

If there's a bacterial component to the infection, your vet will likely prescribe topical antibiotic ointment or drops like Tobramycin that go directly into the eye. This is usually the treatment for scratches on the eye, as well.

Allergic conjunctivitis, on the other hand, can benefit from steroid drops to reduce inflammation, while other immunosuppressant drops like cyclosporine are often prescribed for KCS. However, both of these drops will worsen bacterial infections or abrasions on the eye, so having your vet rule out these conditions is essential before starting treatment with any drops.

When to See the Vet for a Dog Eye Infection

Any eye problem warrants a trip to the vet. Many ocular conditions can present with similar symptoms, so it's best to have your veterinarian perform an eye exam with possible diagnostics to ensure that the correct treatment is being used. If you notice any of the following symptoms, seek urgent veterinary care.

  • The eye appears to be bulging or protruding.
  • The eye appears sunken.
  • The eye appears to be dented.
  • The eye appears opaque.
  • There is pus draining from the eye.
  • There's significant swelling above, below, or surrounding the eye.
  • There appears to be an object sticking out of the eye.
  • Your dog cannot open their eye.

Catch Eye Infections Early to Avoid Complications

Eye infections are not only uncomfortable, but can become very serious. If left untreated, your dog could lose their vision or even their entire eye. Address any dog eye problems early on to ensure the best outcome for your pet. If your dog has frequent eye infections, there may be a hidden underlying issue that should be treated.

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How to Treat a Dog Eye Infection (the Right Way)