If you have ever had an eyelash in your eye, you understand how acutely painful an eye condition can be. Many pet eye conditions can cause similar acute surface pain, while others can lead to headache-like sensations. Some pets, particularly those with slow onset conditions, can adapt to or hide their pain, making eye problems difficult to identify. 

Many pet owners ask the Veterinary Vision Center team whether their pet’s eye condition is painful, and how they can monitor their furry friend’s pain levels. To help answer these questions, we’re sharing which eye conditions commonly result in pain and signs to look for at home.

Common pet eye pain causes

Eye pain can originate from surface diseases that affect the cornea or from structures inside the eye. We know from research and human experience that eye surface diseases can cause a gritty, dry, itchy discomfort, and that pain originating from inside the eye can be achy or similar to a migraine headache. Not all eye diseases cause pain, including some degenerative corneal and retinal conditions that may lead to blindness instead.

A few eye conditions that may cause pain in pets include:

  • Corneal ulcers
  • Corneal perforation
  • Eyelid and eyelash conditions resulting in hairs that rub on the eye (e.g., entropion, ectopic cilia)
  • Dry eye
  • Glaucoma
  • Inflammation inside the eye (i.e., uveitis)
  • Eye trauma or injury
  • Conjunctivitis

Pet eye pain signs

Eye pain in pets can be subtle and difficult to identify. Some pets never show obvious signs of pain, despite having a condition we know causes discomfort. Owners of these pets often remark that they have a “whole new pet” after their condition is treated, because the pain they presumably had before has resolved. Like people, pets also can adapt to chronic pain and learn to live their lives in this state. These pets are suffering, and identifying their pain is the best way to alleviate that suffering.

Signs that a pet may be experiencing eye pain include:

  • Squinting, blinking, or closing their eyes more than normal
  • Elevated third eyelids, which rise from the eye’s inner corner
  • Rubbing their eyes on furniture or carpet
  • Pawing at their eyes
  • Excessive tearing
  • Tenderness around their eye—wincing or yelping when touched 
  • Lethargy or reduced appetite

Pet eye pain diagnosis

A thorough ophthalmic examination is the first step to diagnose your pet’s eye pain. Our team will check your pet’s vision and reflexes, evaluate all front eye structures using a specialized handheld microscope, and use a handheld lens and headlamp to visualize the back of your pet’s eye. Additional testing to help narrow the diagnosis can include:

  • Fluorescein stain to look for eye surface wounds and evaluate tear film quality
  • Eye pressure test (i.e., tonometry) to check for glaucoma
  • Schirmer tear test to check tear quantity

The eyes are the window to your pet’s health, and eye pain or disease is sometimes linked to a systemic health condition. If we suspect your pet’s eye pain is the result of an underlying disease, such as a fungal infection, autoimmune disease, or tumor, we may order additional blood or urine testing, or refer you to another facility for advanced imaging.

Pet eye pain treatments

Many pet owners want to know if a pain relief eye drop can help their pet. Unfortunately, the only topical medications that directly relieve pain do so for only a few hours, and cannot be used for more than a few doses. Instead, our focus is on treating the underlying eye condition to resolve the pain indirectly. Oral anti-inflammatory or pain medications may be helpful in the meantime, as can a temporary soft contact lens used as a bandage for the eye surface.

Treatments for painful eye conditions vary depending on the problem, but may include:

  • Anti-inflammatories
  • Immunomodulators
  • Antibiotics
  • Surgery
  • Outpatient procedures

Our knowledgeable team will discuss your pet’s diagnosis and options for treatment with you. If your pet has a blinding eye condition that also is causing them significant pain, we may recommend eye removal to promote their comfort. This may sound extreme for some, but is often the best choice to permanently remove discomfort. We see many blind and one-eyed patients in our clinic who live full, happy, comfortable lives. 

Like other pain types, eye pain can negatively affect your pet’s quality of life. An accurate diagnosis and treatment plan developed by the Veterinary Vision Center team can help relieve your pet’s discomfort and restore their wellbeing. Contact us to schedule a visit if your pet is showing signs of eye pain, or if you have other concerns about their vision or eye health.