A cat's eyes are more than a window to the feline soul. The eyes are amazingly intricate organs that provide our little predator with critical sensory input. Unfortunately, eyes are also very delicate. They may not need constant grooming or require any special routine care, but when eye problems occur in cats, owners have to take notice and act quickly.

Interview with Dr. Alexandra van der Woerdt, DVM - board certified by both the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Ophthalmologists.
We recently talked to Dr. Alexandra van der Woerdt, DVM, about eye problems in cats. Dr. van der Woerdt is an award-winning veterinarian who is board certified by both the American and European Colleges of Veterinary Ophthalmologists. In a series of questions and answers, she shares important information about eye problems in cats and what owners should be aware of.

What are the most common eye problems in cats?

Dr. van der Woerdt: There are several eye issues that vets see in cats. Conjunctivitis is a common condition that affects many cats and it basically means an infection of the inner side of the eyelid and the surface of the eye itself. There can be many reasons for conjunctivitis in cats, and it's imperative for owners to consult a veterinarian as soon as symptoms appear.

Feline Herpes virus is a common cause of eye infections which can have severe consequences for the eyes. This is especially common in cats that were born "on the streets" or come from shelters. The Herpes virus typically affects young kittens and shows itself as an upper respiratory infection. I am sure you have seen kittens that are sneezing and have watery eyes? That is often the work of the Herpes virus.

A kitten blinded by feline herpes virus. Read more about eye problems in cats
Feline Herpes virus affects the tissues that line the eyes and thereby causes inflammation of the conjunctiva. It can cause the formation of corneal ulcers as well. Severe complications can occur if secondary bacterial infections get into the corneal ulcers. These can lead to corneal ulcers that are so severe that they can actually cause a corneal perforation. These kittens' eyes literally rupture, ending in blindness.

What types of eye issues require immediate veterinary attention?

Dr. van der Woerdt: Immediate veterinary attention is indicated in case of any type of trauma to the eye(s) or surrounding tissues, sudden color change of the eye(s), or squinting/discharge that persists for more than one or two days.

In young kittens with viral-induced ulcers with secondary bacterial infections, immediate aggressive treatment can make the difference between a blind eye and an eye that will have great vision for the rest of the cat's life. Do not delay treatment and get any kitten with eye symptoms to the vet immediately.

Can eye problems be a symptom of other underlying medical issues?

Dr. van der Woerdt: The eyes can be the "window to the rest of the cat's body". There are several conditions which can first manifest themselves in changes in the eyes. Anterior uveitis (inflammation of the iris) is often associated with systemic diseases. Systemic hypertension often manifests itself first as bleeding in the eye or a decrease in vision.

Only your veterinarian can diagnose eye conditions. He or she will also perform an overall check that will help them decide the cause of the cat's eye symptoms.

What are the typical eye problems vets see with senior cats?

Dr. van der Woerdt: There are fortunately not that many issues that typically arise with cat eyes as they age. They do of course get a very dense lens (nuclear sclerosis) as they get older. This may show as a mild cloudiness, but will have no significant effect on vision and does not require any treatment.

The older the cat gets, the more likely though it is that it may develop systemic diseases that may involve the eyes as well. It's important to have regular veterinary checkups for senior cats and monitor them for changes, including in the eyes.

How can an owner tell when a cat doesn't see well anymore?

Dr. van der Woerdt: Cats adapt extremely well to a gradual decline in vision and many owners are not aware of vision loss until they do some significant moving around of furniture in their house. I have known blind cats who carry on as usual, including jumping on top of refrigerators!

Signs that owners may see are likely to be subtle until significant vision loss is present. The cat may play less with his or her toys, hesitate more when jumping on things, misjudge distances when jumping, and things like that. But these may also simply be signs of aging and unrelated to cat eye problems. The most important thing that owners can do is seek veterinary care if they suspect there may be an issue with the eyes.

How does a vet diagnose loss of sight (partial or complete)?

Dr. van der Woerdt: Vision testing can be difficult in cats as it requires the cat's cooperation, and not all cats agree with it. Vision testing that is typically done in a veterinarian's office is the response to hand motions or evaluation of things like whether or not cats track falling cotton balls (no noise associated with that). I find that especially breeds such as the Persian cat often simply ignore what I am doing although they see just fine. Cats are cats!

Many of our members deal with chronic feline herpes. What can you tell us about ocular herpes in cats?

Dr. van der Woerdt: Feline Herpes virus is the most common cause for eye infections in cats. They typically get this as young kittens and the virus goes dormant in the body. It can resurface in times of stress or as the cat ages with a decrease in the immune system.

It is difficult to protect cats from this as the virus is so common. Especially if cats come from a shelter environment, they will likely have been in contact with the virus. It is always a good idea to keep cats with active disease (sneezing, red, watery eyes) separated from the other cats.

Feline herpes is a very frustrating disease because we can never cure it. Eliminating stress is important in cats prone to recurrences. Fortunately, medications are available nowadays that only need to be given a few times per day, rather than the 6-8 times with the traditional medications.

Are there any zoonotic eye infections that cats can infect their owners with?

Dr. van der Woerdt: The one zoonotic eye disease that comes to mind is Chlamydophila, which has zoonotic potential especially for immunocompromised people. This will typically show up as conjunctivitis in both cats and people.

When should a cat owner consider asking for a referral to a certified Veterinary Ophthalmologist? What can they do that our regular vets can't?

Dr. van der Woerdt: The specialist has equipment that the general practitioner does not have. But more important than that, a specialist has undergone many years of additional training and a rigid examination process in the field of veterinary ophthalmology and will have a wealth of knowledge and experience about this one organ, the eye, that a general veterinarian is unlikely to have.

Many ocular diseases can be treated by general veterinarians. Referral to a specialist is a good idea if no improvement is noted in the condition despite treatment.

We'd like to thank Dr. Alexandra van der Woerdt on behalf of TheCatSite community for taking the time to answer our questions!

If you're worried that your cat may be suffering from an eye problem, please do not delay medical care. Call your vet, describe the symptoms and follow professional medical advice.[/float]