Pet Factsheets

Ocular discharge

Purulent (pussy) ocular discharge
©Vladimir Jekl

Ocular discharge refers to discharge from the eyes. This can affect one or both eyes and any discharge originating from the eyes should be thoroughly assessed, as it may be a sign of ocular disease or underlying dental problems.

What do normal rabbit eyes look like?

A rabbit’s eyes should be bright and alert with no discharge. Looking from above the rabbit they should be symmetrical with neither protruding more than the other. Either eye bulging is abnormal. Eyes being sunken or dull are signs of dehydration and illness; any of these signs or discharge from the eyes is abnormal and should be taken to a vet for examination.

What does the discharge look like?

This depends upon the cause of the discharge. If there is no infection present, the discharge may be clear in colour. If there is infection it may be pus like and be white, yellow or even a green colour. The discharge may be smelly too and thick in consistency. The fur around the eye will often matt together and may fall out, causing the skin to become red, sore and inflamed. This can be extremely painful for the rabbit.

What can cause ocular discharge?

There are lots of reasons why a rabbit may have discharge from one or both eyes. These include:

  • Dust or foreign body within the eye – this usually affects only one eye.
  • Corneal ulcer on the surface of the eye – normally only one eye is affected.
  • Entropion – this is where the eyelashes grow inwards and rub on the surface of the eye, causing irritation. It may affect one or both eyes.
  • Bacterial infections – there are lots of bacterial infections which may cause ocular discharge.
  • Blockage of the nasolacrimal duct due to dental disease – the nasolacrimal duct runs from the eyes to the nose and along the upper jaw. If the tooth roots overgrow and impinge upon the tear duct, they can cause a blockage, so the tears overflow in the eye as they cannot run down the tear duct to the nose.

Will there be any other signs?

Sometimes along with the discharge from one or both eyes, the rabbit may have discharge from the nose, matted/missing fur around the eye(s) with red, sore and inflamed skin. If the rabbit is suffering from dental disease, they may also hypersalivate and be off their food with some weight loss. Rabbits that are in pain may also eat less, be withdrawn and pass fewer/smaller droppings. These are all causes for concern and the rabbit must see a vet for prompt treatment.

How can my vet diagnose the cause?

Firstly, they will perform a through clinical examination, looking at the whole rabbit and examining the rabbit’s eye(s). They will look to see if there are any signs of a foreign body, such as a hay seed, or any ingrowing eyelashes.

They may place some fluorescein dye in the eye(s) to see if there are any corneal ulcers present and attempt to flush the nasolacrimal duct, to see if there is a blockage. If your vet wants to see if there is an infection, they may suggest taking a swab to send off for testing and to see what antibiotics may be best to use.

Dental disease will need to be diagnosed under sedation or general anaesthetic with x-rays taken to assess the tooth roots. The rabbit may need supportive treatment first to make the anaesthesia safer by syringe feeding, fluid therapy, pain relief and prokinetic medication to keep the digestive system moving.

What treatment will be required?

If the cause is a foreign body this will need to be removed which may require sedation or a general anaesthetic. Entropion also requires surgery to remove the excess skin around the eyes so the eyelashes don’t rub against the eye.

Corneal ulcers may need to be removed to encourage healing, as well as prescribing eye medication. Removal is normally carried out under sedation and involves the surgical removal of a section or layer of the cornea to encourage the ulcer to heal. Infections will require antibiotics and blockages of the nasolacrimal duct may require repeated flushing. However, sometimes it’s not possible to flush them due to the amount of discharge or severity of the blockage.

Dental disease requires general anaesthesia to assess the teeth properly and perform a dental, this will need to be repeated regularly.

Is there any homecare required?

If it’s not possible to resolve the discharge, the owner will have to keep the skin clean and dry so it doesn’t become sore. The bonded companion of an affected rabbit will often groom the area keeping it clean. Otherwise, the owner will need to bathe it gently each day and carefully apply a barrier cream, such as Vaseline, to the skin (not the eye) so the tears do not burn the skin.

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