If left untreated, the bacterial infection can be very painful to cattle and cause blindness

Pinkeye is a common ailment in the livestock world, especially when it comes to cattle.

While the old saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is true when it comes to pinkeye, sometimes cattle contract it anyway, and it must be treated to prevent further issues.

“Pinkeye in cattle is caused by the bacteria, Moraxella bovis, which is an opportunistic bacteria that infects irritated eyes,” explained Dr. Heidi Ward, assistant professor and veterinarian with the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service. “The eyes of cattle become irritated by sunlight, tall grass, dry and dusty conditions and face flies. The face flies feed on discharge from the eyes, where they spread the bacteria from animal to animal. The resulting infection causes conjunctivitis and corneal ulcers. The condition is very painful and can lead to permanent blindness if left untreated.”

Antibiotics are commonly used to treat pinkeye since it is a bacterial infection.

“Once diagnosed, cattle can be treated with an injectable antibiotic such as oxytetracycline, preferably with an injectable form of pain control,” Ward said.

Only injectable antibiotics should be used, however.

“It is important to note that pinkeye cannot be treated by antibiotics in feed, according to the Veterinary Feed Directive. To do so would be considered extra-label use, which is illegal,” cautioned Ward.

“Common treatments cattlemen use are antibiotics administrated in injectable forms, treating the eye directly with products to relieve irritation, control flies, patch the affected eye or even sew it shut to prevent further irritation from dust, pollen and bright sunlight,” Eldon Cole, livestock specialist with the University of Missouri Extension said.

The environment of afflicted animals should also be considered when treating pinkeye.

“Place them in a shady area or in a barn where irritants are less likely to bother them,” advised Cole. “If both eyes are affected, this makes it easier for the calf to find its mother (if the animal is a nursing calf) and water.”

There are pinkeye vaccinations available – however, simply buying the commercial vaccine and adding it to your vaccination program rarely helps your herd in the long run. Customizing the right pinkeye vaccine requires some research and discussion with your veterinary professional.

“Vaccination can be started in herds with chronic pinkeye problems. There are several strains of Moraxella, so testing should be done. The commercial vaccine may not provide adequate immunity to address the herd problem and may end up being a waste of money. If the strain is properly identified through testing, a custom vaccine can be made for the herd. This should all be done in cooperation with a veterinarian,” Ward said. 

A combination of treatment and management will help producers handle pinkeye problems if they arise.

“Fly control, good nutrition, prompt treatment and removal of the affected animals from herd mates are helpful,” Cole said.


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