A sight for sore eyes: con­junc­tivi­tis in dogs


MARLOE, a Cho­co­late Labrador Retriever, was just four months old when she first de­vel­oped the prob­lem with her eyes. It seemed to hap­pen sud­denly: one morn­ing when she woke up, there was a white sticky dis­charge from both eyes. At the same time, her eyes seemed to be itchy: she kept rub­bing them with both front feet. At first, her owner thought that she might be hav­ing a sim­ple, mild prob­lem that would go away by it­self. She tried clean­ing Marloe’s eyes with cot­ton pads and luke­warm, slightly salty water, and this seemed to soothe Marloe’s dis­com­fort tem­po­rar­ily. But when she still had the prob­lem a few days later, it was time to go to the vet to get help for her.

My first im­pres­sion was that Marloe was suf­fer­ing from a com­mon prob­lem to af­fect both an­i­mals and hu­mans: con­junc­tivi­tis. By def­i­ni­tion, this means in­flam­ma­tion of the lin­ing of the eye, known as the ‘con­junc­tiva’: this is the mem­brane that cov­ers the white of the eye, and ex­tends to cover the en­tire in­ner sur­face of the eye­lids. If you pull down the lower eye­lid, or if you lift up the up­per eye­lid, the red fleshy tis­sue that you can see is the “con­junc­tiva”. When this be­comes ir­ri­tated, it be­comes “in­flamed”, which means it be­comes red, sore and itchy. The big ques­tion that re­mained, how­ever, was what was caus­ing this ir­ri­ta­tion to Marloe’s eyes?

There are four main causes of con­juc­tivi­tis: viruses, bac­te­ria, en­vi­ron­men­tal ir­ri­tants and al­ler­gies. In cats, viruses and bac­te­ria are the most com­mon causes, caus­ing an in­fec­tious con­di­tion that of­ten spreads from cat to cat. In con­trast, con­junc­tivi­tis in dogs is rarely in­fec­tious: in­di­vid­ual dogs tend to be af­fected, rather than ev­ery an­i­mal in the house­hold. Con­junc­tivi­tis in dogs is more likely to be caused by ir­ri­tants and al­ler­gies, so I asked Marloe’s owner some ques­tions about any­thing that Marloe might have come into con­tact with that could have pro­voked a re­ac­tion.

It turned out that Marloe had been for a long beach walk on a windy day, just be­fore her eyes started to itch. It seemed likely that whipped-up sand could have caused an ini­tial ir­ri­ta­tion to her eyes, and sub­se­quently bac­te­ria could have moved into the ir­ri­tated area, per­pet­u­at­ing the prob­lem. My first choice of treat­ment was an oint­ment that in­cluded an an­tibi­otic to clear up any bac­te­rial in­fec­tion with some anti-in­flam­ma­tory steroids to ease the red­ness and itch­i­ness. Marloe re­sponded quickly to this treat­ment: within a cou­ple of days, her eyes re­turned to nor­mal.

I’d hoped that Marloe’s sore eyes would have been per­ma­nently cured by this treat­ment, but within a few days of the oint­ment fin­ish­ing, the prob­lem re­curred. It was mild enough, but there was a white dis­charge ev­ery morn­ing, and she be­gan to rub her eyes again. And she had not been any­where near a beach this time. So what was go­ing on?

This time, I ex­am­ined her eyes even more closely, to see if there were any clues as to pos­si­ble causes. I used small strips of fil­ter pa­per to mea­sure the amount of tears that Marloe was pro­duc­ing. Some dogs don’t pro­duce enough tears to keep the eye moist, suf­fer­ing from a prob­lem known as ‘ ker­ati­tis sicca’ or ‘dry eye’. Af­fected an­i­mals are prone to con­tin­ual eye prob­lems be­cause of the lack of lu­bri­ca­tion in the eyes. One an­swer is the reg­u­lar ap­pli­ca­tion of drops of ar­ti­fi­cial tears from a bot­tle. As it hap­pened, Marloe’s tear pro­duc­tion was nor­mal, so this was not the prob­lem in her case.

Next, I used a mag­ni­fy­ing lens to ex­am­ine the lin­ing of Marloe’s eyes in closer de­tail. I checked care­fully for tiny in­grow- ing hairs on the in­side of her eye­lids. If these are present, they can cause a con­tin­ual low­grade ir­ri­ta­tion, but in Marloe’s case, there were none. How­ever un­der mag­nif­ca­tion, I could see some­thing else: tiny pin­point-sized nod­ules on the in­ner lin­ing of the cor­ners of her eyes. These char­ac­ter­is­tic nod­ules are made of lym­phoid tis­sue: the eye-equiv­a­lent of minia­ture swollen ton­sils. This find­ing was highly sug­ges­tive of a com­mon prob­lem in young dogs, known as ‘fol­lic­u­lar con­junc­tivi­tis’. The pre­cise cause is usu­ally dif­fi­cult to find, but it’s of­ten thought to be an al­ler­gic re­ac­tion to some­thing in the dog’s en­vi­ron­ment. It could be house dust, pol­lens or floor clean­ers. It’s im­por­tant to check for ob­vi­ous sub­stances that might be in­volved, but as is of­ten the case, there was noth­ing in Marloe’s home that stood out.

There’s a sim­ple, prac­ti­cal an­swer: the daily use of anti-in­flam­ma­tory steroid eye drops. These dampen down the al­ler­gic re­ac­tion, re­liev­ing the itch­i­ness, stop­ping the dis­charge and re­turn­ing the eyes to nor­mal. Most young dogs grow out of the prob­lem as they ma­ture, so the drops just need to be used for a few months.

Luck­ily, Marloe is an ex­cep­tion­ally good na­tured dog, and her owner has trained her to ac­cept drops into her eyes by do­ing it as gen­tly as pos­si­ble, and by giv­ing her treats and praise ev­ery time. At first, the drops had to be ap­plied five or six times daily, but since the worst of the sore­ness has re­solved, twice daily ap­pli­ca­tion has been enough to keep things un­der con­trol.

Marloe is now eight months old, and her owner’s plan is to carry on with the twice daily drops for an­other two months. At that stage, with luck, she’ll have grown out of the sen­si­tiv­ity, and Marloe will be able to live an eye-drop-free life.

Marloe had a dis­charge from both eyes ev­ery morn­ing

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