Veterinary Handbook Disease Finder

Eye Discharge


Other Names

  • Ocular Discharge



Eye discharges are the result of irritation to the cornea or conjunctiva, or both. They are commonly encountered in the export process, are usually very noticeable, and may raise concerns at health inspections.

Eye discharges are often initially serous and may then become purulent over time due to chronic inflammation and bacterial involvement. Unilateral discharge may be due to local inflammation, while bilateral discharge may be due to systemic disease or environmental irritants such as fodder dust or ammonia vapour. Eye discharge associated with closed, partly closed or excessive movement of eyelids, indicates pain in the eye from ulceration, foreign body or both. Conjunctival inflammation may result in prominent blood vessels, vascularisation, and reddening of the eye.

Corneal inflammation (keratitis) may result in increased vascularisation, ulceration and scarring, with more severe and chronic changes potentially interfering with normal eyesight.

Clinical Signs and Diagnosis

Animals with eye discharges should be examined, if possible, to determine the cause and particularly to look for foreign bodies.

Examination may require physical restraint, sedation, topical anaesthesia, and a light source.
Clues to diagnosis are whether single or multiple animals are affected and whether discharges are unilateral or bilateral, watery or purulent, and whether they are accompanied by other localised or systemic signs. Watery (serous) discharges are usually from dust, ammonia vapour and upper respiratory tract viruses. The hair on the face becomes wet and stained. Yellow, thick discharges are usually from foreign material such as grass seeds, chaff and sawdust or fodder fines. Severe inflammation and discharge on one side may be from listeriosis or middle ear infection.

Common causes of eye discharges in export livestock are ocular irritants, foreign bodies or trauma, pinkeye, and in cattle, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and malignant catarrhal fever. Excessive lacrimation may accompany many other systemic diseases including heat stress, bovine viral diarrhoea virus infection, bovine ephemeral fever and malignant catarrhal fever. These conditions should be associated with other characteristic signs or histories.


If there is recent history suggesting grass seeds, chaff or other foreign bodies having entered the eye, each affected animal should be restrained and undergo examination of the eyes, especially of the conjunctival sacs. Removal of foreign bodies is made easier by use of topical anaesthesia and forceps.

Antibiotics (procaine penicillin, oxytetracycline, or trimethoprim sulpha) and non- steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (flunixin meglumine, or ketoprofen) are commonly used to treat inflammatory eye conditions. Parenteral administration usually achieves therapeutic concentrations in the eye and tears. Topical treatments may be more problematic because of the effort required to restrain each animal to administer treatment and the need to repeat intra-ocular treatments frequently because they are rapidly washed away by tears.

Powdered formulations for topical use are contraindicated because they can scratch the eye and worsen the problem. Subconjunctival antibiotic injection (under the eyelid) may also offer an alternative approach to treatment.


Controlling the factors contributing to corneal irritation such as flies, dust and fodder fines, as well as preventing aerial dispersion of sawdust and chaff, should lower the incidence of eye discharges.