Inflamed, goopy, gross-looking eyes are a hallmark of rescued kittens everywhere. Kitten eye infections are usually a symptom of another disease, rather than a disease in themselves. Almost all are contagious to other cats, but only two relatively rare ones are contagious to you.
Why the Goop?
Eye infections are enormously more common in kittens than adult cats because their immune systems are still developing. They're almost universal among rescued kittens simply because these guys are least likely to have received early vaccination. Most infections that afflict kitten eyes are preventable ... they're also extremely common and easily transmitted from older, often symptomless cats.
Herpes and Chlamydia??!!
It may sound shocking, but cat herpes is responsible for most kitten eye infections and so-called "cat chlamydia" is close in the running for second place.
Unlike human herpes, cat herpes is spread like the common cold and causes cold-like symptoms, including nasty-looking eye inflammation. "Cat chlamydia" is actually feline chlamydophila. It's spread through close contact and causes cold-like symptoms and conjunctivitis (inflammation of the red part of the eye and lids).
Neither are contagious to humans or any animals besides cats. Both have vaccines, but they don't necessarily stop infection, though most vets insist they reduce severity. Most infections run their course (though kittens weakened by malnourishment, temperature extremes, injury, or other diseases do sometimes die from the added physical stress), but cats may have periodic outbreaks for the rest of their lives.
The uvea's the pupil, iris and stuff attached to them inside. Uveitis is a lot scarier and more complicated than conjunctivitis and gloppy eyes.
Some serious diseases, like the potentially fatal FIV, FeLV and FIP, cause uveitis, but so do some less dangerous diseases. Complicating the issue, a full 60 percent of cases are of unknown origin.
Sometimes the end result is blindness, loss of an eye or glaucoma (or an obvious combination) and in fairly rare cases the infection travels up the optic nerve and gets into the brain, so a cat with uveitis is usually medicated, even if the cause is unknown. However, if it doesn't seem like the uveitis is doing anything in particular and a cause can't be found, your vet may take a wait-and-see approach.
Most infections that cause uveitis are contagious to other cats but not humans. We're about to get to the two notable exceptions.
Toxoplasmosis and Cat Scratch Fever
Only two kitten diseases cause eye infections and are contagious to humans.
Toxoplasmosis is the most well-known human-contagious cat disease, striking terror into the hearts of pregnant women and obstetricians everywhere. On the one hand, this is justified -- prenatal exposure to toxoplasmosis can cause seriously horrible birth defects. On the other, you have to actually get infected cat poop into your mouth to catch it. (So think twice about letting Fluffy's litter box paws onto your kitchen counters and pillows, but don't panic unnecessarily.) Toxoplasmosis can cause uveitis, among more obvious symptoms, but in most kittens it causes brief, barely noticeable illness or no symptoms at all.
Cat scratch fever isn't nearly as sexy as certain classic rock artists may've led you to believe. It's a bacterial infection spread through cat saliva. It'll get you if your infected kitten gets you with a swipe or bite, and can cause a whole bunch of miserable symptoms from body aches, fever and chills, to itchy welts, to conjunctivitis, infection of the retina and even of the optic nerve. Most infected kittens show few or no symptoms (though they can have the whole cold-with-runny-eyes look) and recover quickly without complications. The same may not be true for you, so if you come down with flu-like symptoms, swollen lymph nodes or pink eye after a kitten-related injury, check in with your doctor.
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: Toxoplasmosis in Cats
- Cat World: Chlamydia in Cats - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment
- Animal Eye Care: Feline Uveitis (Intraocular Inflammation)
- Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine: Feline Leukemia Virus
- Cat World: Feline Herpes Virus (Cat Flu) - Causes, Symptoms & Treatment of Cat Herpes
- Cat World: Cat Conjunctivitis (Pink Eye) - Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment
Angela Libal began writing professionally in 2005. She has published several books, specializing in zoology and animal husbandry. Libal holds a degree in behavioral science: animal science from Moorpark College, a Bachelor of Arts from Sarah Lawrence College and is a graduate student in cryptozoology.