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Is conjunctivitis in dogs contagious?

Some dog pinkeye can be contagious and threaten a dog's vision and health. Expert share symptoms to watch for and explain what to do if your dog might have conjunctivitis.

Maybe you’ve noticed some discharge coming from your dog’s eye, or maybe you think the eye seems swollen or your dog is holding it closed. Conjunctivitis in dogs has several causes, some of which may threaten your dog’s vision and health. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms and bring any concerns to your vet in a timely manner. Read on for tips about what to do if you think your dog might have pinkeye.

Types and causes of conjunctivitis

First, it’s important to understand the difference between infectious conjunctivitis (pinkeye) and other types of conjunctivitis. The diagnosis of conjunctivitis is given when the conjunctiva (the pink tissue covering the inside of the eyelids) and the white of the eye are inflamed. Several things could cause this.

“There is certainly a small number of dogs that can get bacterial or viral or even parasitic conjunctivitis,” says Dr. Katie Smith, a resident in veterinary ophthalmology at the Center for Veterinary Health Sciences at Oklahoma State University. “But infectious conjunctivitis is relatively rare. Of all the possible causes, the majority of dogs are going to have non-infectious conjunctivitis.”

Causes of non-infectious conjunctivitis, according to Smith, are foreign material in the eye (such as grit), allergies, a congenital condition such as a tear-film abnormality or chemical irritants, such as shampoo. An injury during a dogfight can also cause conjunctivitis.

Dogs are particularly predisposed to non-infectious conjunctivitis, agrees Dr. David Haworth, veterinarian and president and co-founder of Vidium Animal Health. In humans, he explains, the eyelid connects to the eye relatively securely. Breeds such as retrievers or hounds have a drooping bottom eyelid, practically inviting foreign bodies to become lodged near the conjunctiva. Smaller breeds may have an eyelid that turns in on itself, causing an eyelash to rub the cornea, which is no fun for you or your dog.

What symptoms to look out for

Dogs scratch their eyes more often than people do, says Haworth, so be on the lookout for other symptoms in addition to this. If your dog is consistently holding one eye closed, that can be a red flag, especially if your dog pulls away when you try to examine the eye and immediately closes it again.

The eye may appear red or swollen, and your dog may show signs of discomfort, resist looking at the sun or seem to be squinting. If your dog has any of these symptoms and they persist for longer than an hour, arrange an immediate visit to the vet.

Increased discharge from the eye — from watery to thick and stringy, and from clear to green to yellow — is also common, explains Smith. Note that a small amount of discharge may be normal, so you should only be concerned if the discharge is beyond the norm for your dog.

Is conjunctivitis contagious in dogs?

Non-infectious conjunctivitis — due to allergies, foreign bodies in the eye or a physical abnormality — is not contagious. Infectious conjunctivitis, on the other hand, may be. If your dog’s conjunctivitis is viral, it is usually not contagious to you, but might be to other dogs, says Smith. Make sure your dog walker has all of this information to protect all of the pups they walk.

If bacterial, it may be contagious to both humans and to other dogs.

How conjunctivitis is treated

For non-contagious conjunctivitis, your vet might recommend cold compresses, artificial tears or steroid eye drops. If your dog has a contagious eye problem, your vet will prescribe antibiotic eye drips or ointments.

How do you keep the infection from spreading?

First of all, wash your hands thoroughly after touching the affected area on your dog. Secondly, clean your dog’s face with a moist cotton ball regularly to remove discharge. You can also wash surfaces that have touched your dog’s face, such as food and water bowls or toys. In addition, make sure to follow all instructions from your veterinarian and use recommended medications.

Don’t become overly nervous about contagion, the vets say. For a healthy individual who handles a dog with infectious conjunctivitis, taking responsible measures such as hand washing after removing discharge from the dog’s eyes leaves minimal risk for contracting the infection.

Even though dogs may contract the infection from each other, depending on the cause, the risk is relatively minimal if proper precautions are taken. Before sending dogs to a kennel or out with dog walkers or pet sitters, make sure the caregiver is aware of your dog’s conjunctivitis or any other health concern. Your vet can give you specific precautions to take and tell you what to discuss with care providers and other individuals in your dog’s life.