- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Cats may have small eyes, but this body part can still convey all kinds of information. Your cat might squint their eyes for a number of reasons, from happiness and contentment to medical concerns like conjunctivitis or glaucoma.
“There are various ways to tell if your cat is squinting because they’re using body language or squinting due to a medical condition,” says Stephen Quandt, CFTBS, a certified feline behaviorist at Cat Behavior Help.
For instance, slow blinks—which might resemble squinting—are often a sign of affection. But a frightened cat may also squint when they want space.
Below, we’ll cover the signs and symptoms of health concerns that can cause cats to squint and explain how to tell when squinting may simply mean your cat feels safe and content.
8 Medical Reasons Why Cats Squint
If your cat squints and also has other eye-related symptoms, the squinting most likely has a medical cause. Once you notice them squinting, it’s important to pay attention to whether they squint one or both eyes.
“It’s most common for an injury or cancer to affect only one eye,” says Dr. Jamie Whittenburg, director of Kingsgate Animal Hospital and medical director at Cat World. To contrast, viral infections due to upper respiratory infections typically affect both eyes,” Dr. Whittenburg says.
Here are eight medical explanations for squinting in cats.
“When a cat squints their eye, the medical term is ‘blepharospasm’. Cats do this in response to pain, regardless of the cause,” Dr. Whittenburg says.
A cat experiencing pain may show changes in their usual mood and behavior. For instance, they might:
- Have less interest in playing and other activities
- Lose their appetite
- Be more sensitive to touch
- Seem lethargic and move around less than they typically would
- Sit in unusual positions or curl themselves up tightly
- Meow or make other sounds more frequently
Any number of things cause pain, from injury and infection to acute and chronic illnesses. That’s what makes it so important to take your cat to the vet. Your vet can help pinpoint the cause and recommend the right treatment, like an oral or topical eye medication.
Conjunctivitis—the most common eye disorder in cats—involves swelling and inflammation of the conjunctiva. “This is a mucous membrane that covers the outer edge of the eye and the inside of the eyelids,” Dr. Whittenburg says.
Cats with conjunctivitis may:
- Have red eyes
- Leak discharge from the eyes
- Have swollen or inflamed eyes
- Cough or sneeze
- Develop a runny nose
“The most common cause of feline conjunctivitis is a virus,” Dr. Whittenburg says. The virus most frequently linked to conjunctivitis is feline herpesvirus.
If your cat does have conjunctivitis, your vet can prescribe an antiviral or antibiotic medication to tackle the infection and pain medication to help ease their distress as they recover.
The cornea, which sits at the front of the eye, helps with processing light. If it becomes damaged and infected, a painful ulcer can develop.
If your cat does have a corneal ulcer, their eye may:
- Appear red and inflamed
- Seem cloudy or watery
- Leak discharge
- Stay partially closed
They may also paw at their eyes and seem sensitive to light.
Corneal ulcers usually form after trauma to the eye, like a scratch from another cat or something that got stuck under the eyelid. They can also develop due to feline herpesvirus.
If your vet diagnosis a corneal ulcer, they may prescribe antibiotic drops or ointments to clear up any infection and allow the cornea to heal. They may also recommend medications to help control symptoms of any underlying health issues, which may help prevent future ulcers.
This eye disease is much more common in dogs, but it can still affect cats.
Symptoms of feline glaucoma include:
- Clouding in one or both eyes
- Eyes that appear enlarged, or one eye seeming larger than the other
- Dilated pupils that don’t react to light
- Pawing at the eyes
Glaucoma generally develops when the tear duct can’t drain properly. This leads to pressure that damages the optic nerve. Health conditions like feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV) and toxoplasmosis can also create deposits that block the tear ducts.
Although glaucoma can’t be cured, early treatment can help slow its progression. Treatment options include topical and oral medications, like corticosteroids and beta-blockers. In some cases, your vet may recommend surgery to remove the affected eye.
Bacterial infections can affect many different parts of your cat’s body, including their eyes.
Signs of an eye infection include:
- Inflamed third eyelid (which makes it look like the cat is squinting)
- Eye redness
- Winking and squinting
- Rubbing and pawing at the eyes
According to Dr. Whittenburg, cats typically get bacterial infections in their eyes after a scratch or other eye trauma. “The bacteria colonize the damaged tissue, which results in infection.”
If you notice signs of an eye infection, you’ll want to make a vet appointment right away. Your vet can perform an an eye exam and order fluorescein staining to diagnose the infection, Dr. Whittenburg says, adding that treatment will usually involve antibiotics, autologous serum eye drops, and some type of pain medication.
Cats can pass viruses to each other through saliva and other fluids, just as people can.
These viruses may lead to upper respiratory infections, which can cause symptoms like:
- Runny nose
- Pawing at the eyes
- Watery eyes
Other signs to pay attention to include a loss of energy or appetite, fever, and drooling.
According to Dr. Whittenburg, cats can contract viruses that cause colds as well as feline-specific viruses, like calicivirus or feline herpesvirus. Other feline viruses include retroviruses like feline leukemia virus (FeLV) and FIV. Cats can also contract the virus that causes COVID-19, though they’re unlikely to become seriously ill.
Your vet can order a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test to diagnose the cause of the infection,” Dr. Whittenburg says. “Treatment consists of antibiotics to protect from secondary bacterial infections, antivirals, and pain medications.”
A cat with allergies may have symptoms like:
- Red and watering eyes
- Swollen eyes, which can make it seem like they’re squinting or winking
- Coughing and sneezing
- Itchy skin, which means you may notice them scratching often
- Vomiting, diarrhea, and other signs of an upset stomach
Treatment usually depends on the type of allergy. For example, if they’re allergic to fleas, monthly flea treatments can help. If they’re allergic to dust or other airborne allergens, try switching to dust-free litter and limiting strong fragrances, like scented cleaning products, in your home.
Your vet may recommend a food for sensitive stomachs or a prescription diet if they suspect a food allergy. They can also prescribe medication to relieve eye swelling and watering.
If the tissues and film surrounding your cat’s eye become inflamed, the resulting swelling can make it tough for them to open their eyes as they usually would. Blepharitis—eyelid inflammation—is one common cause.
Along with squinting or partially closed eyes, you may also notice:
- Redness around the eye
- Frequent blinking
- Rubbing or pawing at the eyes
According to Dr. Whittenburg, other causes of swollen eyes may include:
- Trauma to the eye
- Foreign material in the eye
- Eye cancer
- An abscess or cancer behind the eye
Your vet can help identify the cause of this swelling and recommend the right treatment—which may range from from medication to surgery, Dr. Whittenburg says.
Treatment will depend on what caused the inflammation and swelling. For instance, if your cat has blepharitis, your vet may prescribe eye drops and recommend gently cleansing the eye area with a warm washcloth.
Why Does My Cat Squint When I Talk To Them?
Keep in mind, too, that good ol’ communication can also play a role in cat squinting. In other words, a squinting cat isn’t necessarily injured or ill!
“Cats communicate volumes through body language. Being in tune with what our cat is trying to tell us lets us deepen our bond with them,” Quandt says.
Unfortunately, there’s no single meaning behind squinting to make things easier for feline owners. Instead, you can think of cat body language as having accents, tonality, and context, Quandt says.
He offers a few examples:
- When your cat sits snuggled in your lap with their eyes half-closed, they likely feel safe and comfortable, because they’re intentionally limiting their vision.
- If your cat approaches you with squinted eyes when you return home after a long day at work, they’re likely showing pleasure at seeing you. People do this, too: When they smile: their eyes squint.
- Squinting can also suggest fear. So if you approach a cat you don’t know, or a cat with a nervous disposition, pay attention for squinting. This is a “Don’t touch me” response.
It’s also possible to mistake slow blinking for squinting. If you notice your cat giving you a long, slow blink, this is a good sign! You can think of it as a cat smile.
“Slow blinking demonstrates vulnerability and indicates trust and positive feelings,” Quandt says, going on to explain that slowly blinking with your cat is a good way to “talk” to them and build trust.
Research suggests cats are more likely to slow blink to if you do it first, according to Quandt. He adds that they may be more receptive to touch, even with people they don’t know, after slow blinking.
How To Check Your Cat’s Eyes If They’re Squinting
Wondering if there’s something’s wrong with your cat’s eyes? It’s natural to want to take a closer look, but staring into their eyes isn’t the way to go.
“A hard or prolonged stare is a way of challenging a cat,” Quandt explains. “It’s a staredown and can be taken as aggressive.” Instead, he suggests slowly blinking or squinting yourself as you take a peek to show your cat they can trust you.
Dr. Whittenburg emphasizes that it’s important to avoid touching when you inspect your cat’s eye. No matter how careful you are, you can’t perform an exam like a vet would, and you could make matters worse by trying.
Instead, make an appointment with your vet as soon as possible. “Most eye issues are urgent, but not emergencies, and can wait until the following day if discovered at night,” Dr. Whittenburg says.
That said, she says if you notice severe trauma, a ruptured globe, or bleeding from the eye, you’ll want to take your cat to the emergency vet immediately.
“The eyes are both vital and fragile, and successful treatment outcomes are much more likely if issues are caught early,” Dr. Whittenburg says. She also emphasizes that eye injuries are very painful—so getting your cat timely treatment can help minimize their pain and distress.