Winter 2010 Newsletter

Rid of the Red Eye

By Gavin Kennard, DVM, DACVO

Look in the mirror, lift your eyelids, and check out your eyelid's lining. That pink tissue along with the tissue covering the white portion of your eyeball is called the conjunctiva, which is very important to the health of your eyes-and, more to the point here, your pet's eyes. The conjunctiva is a protective shield of sorts; it contains special glands, the secretions from which help ensure and maintain healthy, normal eyes. An unhealthy conjunctiva leads to an unhealthy cornea, and no one wants that. So what exactly is an "unhealthy" conjunctiva and what can you do to avoid it or fix it?

Irritants to the conjunctiva can leave it reddened, congested and painful, a condition called conjunctivitis. Conjunctivitis can occur in one eye or both eyes, depending on the cause. Conjunctivitis can be caused by exposure to chemicals, bacteria, viruses, polluted water, and smoke, among other things. More specific to our area, dust and pollens that the wind blows everywhere (from chamisa and juniper bushes, for example) are the most common irritants in this region.

Because of the critical role the conjunctiva plays in maintaining the health of the eye, conjunctivitis when left untreated can lead to bigger and more serious disease processes, including, most commonly, a tear-film deficiency, which in turns leads to corneal ulcers and ocular infections, for example.

The good news is that conjunctivitis is often easily treatable by simply removing the debris, that is, the dust and the pollens, from your pet's eye using sterile saline eyewash that can be bought at any grocery store. If the conjunctivitis persists after rinsing the eyes and applying artificial tears, it is best to seek consultation with your veterinarian or a veterinary ophthalmologist because that red eye could be a sign of more sinister problems. For example, dry eye, corneal infections and even glaucoma also cause red eye. These conditions can be sight- and vision-threatening.

When treating conjunctivitis, the goal is to stop its progression and recurrence and to reverse some of the damage that already might have been done. To achieve this goal, your veterinarian or veterinary ophthalmologist might recommend a medical treatment plan. Medically treating conjunctivitis can involve intermittent or (sometimes) life-long use of topical and/or oral medications.

That said, most conjunctivitis caused by environmental debris is better treated by management, with medicine only augmenting the effectiveness of the management (because life is too short to medicate unnecessarily).

The most important thing you can do to ensure successful treatment is to prevent further irritation to your pet's eyes. For example, make every attempt to keep your pet's eyes free from substances that potentially exacerbate conjunctivitis, such as contaminated water, soap, dust, sprays, and smoke. Also, do everything you can to minimize the risk of trauma to your pet's eyes, self-inflicted or otherwise.

So just remember, while red eyes might look a little scary, typically, simple management will alleviate the problem and keep your pet comfortable and his or her eyes healthy. That said, don't ignore the potential sinister problems that a red eye might represent. Don't take any chances: if the red eye doesn't resolve with the simple principles outlined above, seek the advice of your veterinarian or veterinary ophthalmologist to ensure your pet's happy trails and tales!

Dr. Kennard is a board certified veterinary ophthalmologist and has been serving New Mexico for the past six years. Call (505-292-3600) to get a consultation for your pet's ocular condition.

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