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Examining and medicating a cat’s eyes

Tabby cat with yellow eyes.

Cats aren’t fond of being restrained and having someone put medications in their eyes, however, with some patients and practice this is a task you can complete at home.

How to examine a cat’s eyes

Some cats will calmly sit in your lap or on a table while you medicate their eyes, but many require some form of restraint.

To hold your cat in your lap to place eye medications, drape your left forearm across the cat’s body to keep it in your lap. Hold the head with your left hand and use your left thumb to pull down the lower eyelid.

Hold the medication in your right hand, balancing the heel of your right hand on the cat’s head.

To examine the eyes, the head is cupped between both hands, with one thumb on the upper eyelid and the other thumb on the lower eyelid.

To see the parts of the eye beneath the upper eyelid, pull the upper eyelid up with your thumb. This will open the eye widely. The white part of the eye is the sclera, which is normally glistening white and has small, thin red blood vessels on its surface.

Abnormal findings on the sclera include:

  • large, engorged blood vessels
  • bruises, which could indicate a local injury or a problem with the clotting system
  • yellow discoloration of the sclera, indicating jaundice.

If you stretch the lid more, you will see a pink tissue or the conjunctiva. In health, the conjunctiva should be about the same shade of pink as the gums.

Abnormal findings on the conjunctiva include:

  • pale pink may indicate anemia
  • yellow discoloration, indicating jaundice
  • bruises, which could indicate a local injury or a problem with the clotting system

Peering through the pupil, you look through the lens, which is clear, and you may see a very bright colorful structure, which is the retina.

The iris can be one of several different colors and some cats have two different color irises. Some, but not all, cats with blue eyes are deaf.

Abnormal findings on the iris include:

  • ragged edges or iris atrophy, although this can occur with aging
  • growths on the iris
  • black spots on the iris
  • blood spots on the iris

The pupil is the black spot in the center of the eye. Cat pupils are oval. The pupils should be the same size and should constrict to a slit when a bright light is shined in the eye. The pupil is a hole in the center of the iris. The lens is behind the pupil, but it is not seen when healthy, as it should be clear.

Abnormal findings in the pupil include:

  • blue discoloration of the pupil is a color change in the lens, indicating cataracts or an aging change called nuclear sclerosis
  • different sized pupils, or anisocoria
  • ragged edges, although this can occur with aging

Use your lower thumb to pull down the lower eyelid. The third eyelid, also called the nictitating membrane, will protrude over the bottom inner corner of the eye. In the pictures above, notice that the third eyelid also protrudes when you pull up the upper eyelid. The third eyelid is usually a pale pink or white color and has thin blood vessels on its surface. When you pull the lower lid down, it pulls away from the eyeball and creates a pouch that is lined by pink conjunctiva. This pouch is where eye medications are placed.

Abnormalities of the conjunctiva and third eyelid include:

  • yellow discoloration in patients with jaundice
  • discharge accumulating in the pocket

Putting medication in a cat’s eyes

Eye medications are either drops or ointments. Ointments stay in the eye longer than drops and are usually applied less often. Your veterinarian will prescribe specific medications for specific conditions.

Cradle the head in one hand, usually the left hand if you are right-handed. Use the thumb of the hand holding the head to pull down the lower eyelid to create a pouch. Hold the ointment tube in your right hand, with the tip a few millimeters away from the eye, not touching the eye, squeeze a small ribbon of ointment into the pouch.

To distribute the ointment across the eye, massage the ointment across the surface of the eye with eyelids closed.

Eye drops are also placed in the pouch created when you pull down the lower eyelid. Hold the head and pull down the lower eyelid as described for placing ointments. Drop the prescribed number of drops into the pouch without the tip of the bottle touching the eye. Eye drops disperse across the surface of the eye rapidly and do not need to be rubbed across the eye by massaging.

Depending upon the size of the cat’s head and your hands, you may rest the middle finger or heel of the hand holding the bottle or tube on the cat’s head to keep your hand steady and reduce the risk of poking the cat in the eye with the bottle or tube.


This information is not meant to be a substitute for veterinary care. Always follow the instructions provided by your veterinarian. Washington State University assumes no liability for injury to you or your pet incurred by following these descriptions or procedures.