What is Red Eye?

Oftentimes, birds with this type of infection will have accompanying nasal discharge, as well as some infectious activity in the respiratory tract. Ophthalmitis is another bacterial infection that causes reddening of the eye, inflammation and large amounts of pus in the eyeball and conjunctiva. Swelling in the eye, in addition to discharge from the sinuses, may both be secondary symptoms that are suggestive of a systemic disease or condition.  In other cases, a red eye is simply the color of the bird’s iris, and is not suggestive of infection or disease. Aside from being the natural iris color, any other unusual reddening, swelling or look to the eye of a bird is a reason for concern and should be taken seriously. Accurate vision is extremely important to the life and well-being of a bird due to its reliance on flight, so any eye problem should be addressed at a veterinary clinic. 

The structure of a bird’s eye is unique in several ways. Due to the reliance on flight and the need to observe minute activity on the ground, birds are graced with keen vision. The avian eyeball exceeds the size of the eyeball of a similarly-sized mammal. The iris is similarly oversized. A bird’s iris is usually a red-brown color, and some species naturally have a red pigmented iris. If the iris is the only reddened part of the eye, there is likely not a need for concern. However, if discoloration (with or without inflammation) is evident in any other part of the eye, whether in the inner area or around the outer structure of the eye, the bird may be suffering from pain and light sensitivity. In this case, the bird will often keep the eye closed to keep light from entering the eye. Another distinct characteristic of the avian eye is its connection to the sinuses. In order to keep the skull lightweight to enable flight, the sinus passages wrap around the eyes. Due to this connection, infection easily travels from the sinuses into the eyes, causing additional swelling and a build-up of exudate (pus). When the infectious secretions (pus) build up, the bird experiences pressure behind and around the eyes. Extreme cases of this type of infection have left birds with a considerable or complete loss of sight.

Domestic or pet birds typically develop red eyes due to allergies, infection or trauma. Just like wild birds, the conjunctiva becomes red and swollen as it reacts to an irritant such as dust, mold, or smoke. Veterinarians recommend that birds be kept away from cigarette smoke. Their cages should be kept free of old food because mold is a common irritant. A bird’s surrounding environment should be kept dust-free to eliminate the possibility of irritation and infection. 

Eye problems in birds, just as in humans, can have serious, life-changing consequences. If redness persists over a 24-hour period, it is recommended that you make a veterinary appointment. Additionally, the reddening of the eye may be indicative of a systemic condition or internal disease that requires treatment.

Red eye in birds is typically a sign of conjunctivitis, which is a bacterial infection that causes swelling around the eye and yellow, greenish or clear discharge.

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Symptoms of Red Eye in Birds

  • Swollen eye area
  • Eye discharge
  • Sneezing
  • Nasal discharge
  • Lethargy
  • Ruffled feathers
  • Tucking head beneath wing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Labored respiration
  • Stretching the neck abnormally
  • Open-mouth breathing
  • Puffing of the cheeks
  • Sleeping excessively
  • Bobbing tail with each breath

Types

Birds present with red, swollen eyes for myriad reasons. Red eyes may be a symptom of a systemic disease, condition or problem, such as an infection. However, there are conditions that specifically affect the eye, including:

  • Conjunctivitis - A common and easily treatable bacterial disorder; it may indicate a larger problem such as a systemic infection
  • Uveitis -  An inflammation of the eye that is also secondary to a larger condition or disease; uveitis needs immediate treatment to thwart eye damage or the development of cataracts
  • Cataracts - May suggest vitamin deficiencies or infections such as encephalomyelitis
  • Marek’s disease - An example of an ocular condition that develops due to a virus; if the virus is left untreated, the bird may develop blindness or cancer and once infected, there is no cure
  • Avian Pox - Also linked to a viral infection, and may lead to partial or total blindness; if caught soon enough, avian pox is treatable

Causes of Red Eye in Birds

  • Irritation 
  • Infection – bacterial, viral and fungal (often due to old, moldy food)
  • Allergies
  • Trauma
  • Secondary to systemic infection or internal condition
  • Iris color
  • Disease
  • Cancer
  • Vitamin deficiency and malnutrition

Diagnosis of Red Eye in Birds

The veterinarian will first conduct a physical examination of the eye. She will need a history of the condition, including when they eye first became discolored, if there has been discharge, or any other physical or behavioral change in the bird.  Testing will depend upon the vet’s observation. Samples of the excretions/discharge will be taken to look for infectious cells.

Due to the possibility of systemic infection, the bird will usually have a blood test (CBC) and serum biochemistry panel. An x-ray may be suggested to look inside the sinuses to determine the extent of inflammation and any structural problems or changes. Conjunctivitis is the most common cause of red eye in birds. In this case, antibiotic ointment for the eyes may be enough to clear the infection.

Treatment of Red Eye in Birds

The veterinarian will often dispense antibiotic eye drops or salve to decrease inflammation and lessen pain. Depending on diagnosis, treatment may include other medications such as antifungals, eye washes and removal of environmental irritants. In some cases, the bird will be hospitalized for observation or IV/subcutaneous medication.

Recovery of Red Eye in Birds

Relocate your bird to another location, avoiding the kitchen and any other smoky areas. Keep the area dust free. Your vet may suggest the use of a humidifier or air purifier. Make sure the cage is clean of any old food to avoid mold spores. If the redness in the eye does not recede, or if the bird develops other symptoms, call your veterinarian immediately.