Cornea Problems in Cats

The cornea, or clear part of the eye, is covered by a protective layer of surface (epithelial) cells. Most destructive processes affecting the cornea begin with an injury to this layer. Any irritative process, such as a foreign body or cat scratch, can cause a surface injury. Cats with prominent eyes, such as Persians, are especially susceptible. Once the continuity of the epithelium has been destroyed, the injury either heals spontaneously or progresses to a more serious problem. The outcome depends on the magnitude of the injury, how quickly it is recognized, and whether the initiating factor has been identified and removed.

Corneal Abrasion

This is defined as an injury to the eye caused by a scratch. Corneal injuries are extremely painful. The cat squints, tears, and paws at the eye, and may be sensitive to light. Often, the third eyelid comes out to protect the injured eye. With an extensive injury, the surface of the cornea surrounding the injury becomes swollen due to edema giving it a cloudy, hazy, or opaque appearance.

The cause of the corneal abrasion can often be suspected from its location. Abrasions in the upper part of the cornea may be caused by misdirected eyelashes on the upper eyelid. Lower corneal abrasions suggest an imbedded foreign body. Abrasions near the inner corner of the eye suggest a foreign body beneath the third eyelid. Even dust blowing onto the cornea may cause a mild abrasion.

Treatment: A cat with a suspected corneal abrasion should be seen by a veterinarian. This can rapidly progress to more serious eye injuries, including corneal ulcer or keratitis. Healing of a corneal abrasion usually takes place in 24 to 48 hours by a process in which the epithelium thins and slides over a small defect. Larger and deeper abrasions require more time. A corneal abrasion will not heal if a foreign body is imbedded in the cornea or beneath one of the eyelids. Accordingly, the cat should be examined for foreign bodies under the eyelids.

Corneal Ulcers

Corneal ulcers are dangerous and must receive prompt medical attention. Most are caused by an injury to the cornea. Others are associated with an infection (virus, bacteria, fungus) or a nutritional deficiency. In some cases, the cause is unknown.

Large ulcers may be visible to the naked eye. They appear as dull spots or depressions on the eye surface. Smaller ones are best seen after the eye has been stained with fluorescein. Your veterinarian will gently put a drop of fluorescein liquid or put a tab of paper impregnated with fluorescein onto the eye. The eye is then examined with a blue light in a room with dim lighting. The corneal damage will glow brightly.

Treatment: Early treatment is vital to avoid serious complications or even loss of the eye. Treatment may include atropine drops for pain control (remember, these drops are quite bitter and cats will foam at the mouth if they get any atropine orally) and antibiotics to prevent secondary bacterial infections.

Cortisone, which is incorporated into many eye preparations used for conjunctivitis, should not be put into the eye if you suspect the cat has a corneal injury. This can lead to rupture of the cornea and blindness.