Understanding eye conditions in senior cats

Handy hints and tips for spotting eye conditions in older cats, so you can take remedial action as soon as possible to preserve this key sense.

26th August 2014

Have you ever gazed lovingly into the eyes of your moggy and been mesmerised by their loveliness? Well, as your cat gets older, this could come in handy. Sight is one of the most crucial senses so it is vital to keep tabs on the health of your cat’s eyes. Luckily there are a number of indicators to watch out for to ensure that your cat’s peepers are in tip-top condition.


Discharge can be thick and sticky or more thin and watery. It can also range from slightly milky to a darker, greenish colour. Look out for any substance around the eye that looks unusual in consistency or colour. Discharge can dry and form a crust around the eyes which can be irritating to your cat, as it is hard and if it gets under the eyelid it can cause scratches on the outer surface of the eye, called the cornea. If your cat does have either of these symptoms then you can wipe it away gently with some cotton gauze-soaked in warm water. Always use soft, sweeping motions from the inner corner of the eye to the outer corner and use a fresh gauze for each eye to avoid cross-infection. Don’t use cotton wool as that can shed fibres in the eye when you wipe it. Discharge can be caused by a number of different illnesses and infections so it is very important to visit your vet as soon as you notice it.

Watering/tear-stained fur

If your cat’s eyes are wetter than usual, if it’s blinking a lot, or if there are often tear tracks on the fur around their eyes, that could be a sign that their eyes are watering. Watery eyes, just like in humans, can mean that the eye is dry, which is easily resolved with eye drops. It is important, however, that you don’t use human eye drops or baths on your cat; consult your vet and he will prescribe a specific medicine if necessary.

Red or white eyelid linings

It is worth taking note of the colour of your cat’s eyelids and eye lining when they are in the peak of health to make it easier to note any changes. If you gently pull the upper and lower external lids apart it should expose the inner lining of the eyelid. If it is visibly red and inflamed or very pale then this could mean that something is not quite right, and it is worth speaking to your vet and booking an appointment to find the cause.

Closed eye(s)

This is a fairly clear sign that something is going on. If you notice that your cat is either shutting (or half-shutting) one or both eyes, or if they are “glued” shut by crusty gunk then there is likely to be an underlying cause that needs investigating by your vet.

Change in eye colour/shape

Eye colour can change for a number of reasons, gradually or over time. If you spot a sudden change, or if the eye starts to go cloudy, that could mean a number of things. If your cat’s eye starts to change size or shape, or looks like it’s bulging, this could be a sign of glaucoma or other eye conditions. If any of these symptoms appear you should speak to your vet as soon as possible as, if it is glaucoma, it needs seeing to before it gets worse.

Visible third eyelid

You may not know that cats have a third eyelid under the external one we can see. This eyelid is white and translucent and helps clear the eye of debris, as well as distributing tear fluid evenly over the eye. This is sometimes visible in the evenings when your cat is tired but it’s worth noting when you can see it during the daytime or if it starts to look inflamed.

Body language

There are more general behaviours that your cat might exhibit if there’s something wrong with their eyes. If they are rubbing their eyes against furniture or bedding, or pawing and scratching at their eyes this could be a sign of an infection or irritation.

While eye trouble can be a symptom of a completely different problem (like respiratory illness) or even of a dietary deficiency, there are some illnesses, conditions and afflictions that could directly affect their eyes, particularly into their old age. Some of these are:


This is a condition where the ducts that drain away the fluid inside the eye get blocked, leading to ineffective drainage. This changes the pressure in the eye and puts stress on the optic nerve. It can affect vision, if left untreated, and can lead to partial sight loss or even blindness. It is easily managed with medication if you spot it early. It is particularly prevalent in older cats and those who also have diabetes. It might be signposted by a bulging or swelling of the eyeball.


This condition affects the crystalline lens, the surface behind the coloured part of the eye which focuses light. The whole lens hardens over time, making it harder for it to stretch to see things at different distances and in different lights. This is completely normal, in fact it’s why most adult humans of a certain age will wear reading glasses or contact lenses for close-up work! Sometimes, though, the lens hardens unevenly and forms cataracts. These can develop at different rates and sometimes don’t require treatment for years, or at all! If they develop faster they can start to affect vision and may require an operation to either remove the cataract or replace the lens altogether. You might spot a dark spot or small clouded part of the eye. If so, contact your vet.


The eye has a thin membrane that covers the entire front of the eye, connecting the top lid to the bottom one. This surface is called the conjunctiva. It is in place to stop any foreign objects from penetrating the eye and to protect the eye from infection. Unfortunately that leaves the conjunctiva itself vulnerable. If it gets infected this causes a condition known as conjunctivitis. This will present itself as a reddened swelling of one or both eyes and may cause discharge. If left untreated it can be very serious. Monitor it carefully and consult your vet.

There are, of course, a multitude of reasons why symptoms may occur and while they are often nothing to worry about it is always wise to speak to your vet if you suspect anything might be wrong.

Insuring your cat gives you peace of mind that you and your pet will be covered if anything unexpected were to happen. Animal Friends offer a variety of policies for dogs, cats and horses, and we also insure older pets.

Please note that this is not intended as a medical document. If you are in any doubt please consult a veterinarian.

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