As anyone who has woken up with a cat sitting on their chest and glaring at them can attest, cats are particularly good at expressing themselves through their gazes. Cats are very sneaky creatures, well-known to be experts at hiding signs of physical disease and distress. For this reason, these deep gazes can be an excellent opportunity to catch early signs of ocular disease in our feline companions.
Eye Problems in Your Cat
Eye disease is a common problem in cats. But due to cats’ quiet nature, it is one that can be easily overlooked, according to Dr. Marcella Ashton, a veterinary ophthalmologist at the The Eye Clinic for Animals in Kearny Mesa, Calif. Owners should be aware of the often-subtle signs of eye disease, so it can be caught and treated early.
In kittens and young cats, the most common ocular diseases are those that are caused by infectious agents or congenital disease (i.e., something the cat was born with). FHV-1, a virus that is one of the causative agents of the feline upper respiratory complex, is a common cause of corneal ulceration. Congenital glaucoma causes an increased pressure inside the eye, resulting in a large, blue eyeball. “The signs are subtle and they mask their pain,” says Ashton, “but the condition can be pretty severe.”
Many times, an underlying systemic disease manifests itself in the eyes and is the first inkling an owner has that the cat is ill. Uveitis, an inflammation of the eyes, is commonly seen in association with systemic infectious diseases such as feline immunodeficiency virus, feline leukemia, toxoplasmosis and bartonella.
“Most owners will notice a cat crying or squinting, which is a pain response,” says Ashton. “They may also notice a difference in pupil size, sensitivity to light, changes in cloudiness of the eyes, or a blue tinge to the eye.” Any of these signs warrant a veterinary visit for a full evaluation, not only to address the eye, but also to make sure there is not an underlying disease that requires treatment.
Be Vigilant About Older Cats
These same conditions are seen in older cats. The FHV virus can remain latent in a certain part of the eye, and flare-ups are common during times of stress for cats or owners. A move, a new pet or a breakup with a boyfriend can stress the cat enough to reactivate the virus.
As cats age, a litany of diseases develop that present in the eye. One of the more common diseases Ashton sees in practice is melanoma, a cancer that manifests as brown spots on the iris. “They can be diffuse brown spots or look like cocoa powder,” says Ashton.
Kidney disease, a common condition in older cats, can also first manifest itself in the eyes. Since the kidneys are involved in the regulation of blood pressure, cats with renal disease often have accompanying high blood pressure. This leads to burst blood vessels in the eyes, causing a red eye, or retinal detachment, which causes blindness.
Symptoms to Watch
Cats are very adaptable, and owners might not notice right away when a cat is having visual problems, says Ashton. “Owners will notice dilated pupils that are not responding to light,” says Ashton. “They may also notice the cat holding their whiskers piloerected (involuntarily erected) forward,” which can also be an indication of a visual problem.
Any of the following signs are cause for a visit to the veterinarian, as they can indicate pain, infection or a disease process:
- Dilated pupils or pupils of two different sizes
- Sudden change in eye color
- Unusual spots on the iris (the colored portion of the eye) or the cornea (the surface of the eye)
- Squinting, winking, or pawing at the eye
- Ocular discharge