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( Originally Published 1936 )
The cat's eyes are its most remarkable feature; their luminous beauty and power of seeing in the darkness had much to do with the awe in which this animal was held by the early Egyptians and its prominence in witch lore and strange religions. The Egyptians believed that the cat's phosphorescent eyes mirrored the sun's rays when it was hidden from man, and so cats were the attendants of Bast, the goddess of the moon, the Sun-god's eye at night. Plutarch affirms that the cat's eyes grow larger and smaller with the waxing and waning of the moon.
It is a fact that cats have the largest volume of eye, compared to their weight, of all animals. And it is their sensitiveness to light, the way the pupil contracts to a slit in strong sunlight and opens in darkness till the iris almost disappears, that helps to give them the touch of the mysterious that we feel.
These marvelous organs, however, are not immune from disease. All sorts of ills with long Latin names, conjunctivitis, keratitis, oedema, trichiasis, entropion, and various others, can afflict a cat's beautiful eyes. Cats have cataracts, they get motes in their eyes, their sight becomes dim in old age. And no way has been found to induce them to wear spectacles. Artificial eyes are made for them, and I knew a noble Thomas who, having lost an orb in a nocturnal escapade, was required by his mistress to wear a false one when she had guests for tea. He hated it, for the eye was not practical-always falling out and having to be stuck back in again.
Probably conjunctivitis, or inflammation of the mucous membrane of the eye, is the commonest visual trouble with cats. It may come from an attack of distemper or start with catarrh, or it may be caused by smoke, or dust, or poisonous gases. Sometimes both eyes are affected, sometimes only one. There is redness and a swollen look, and the sufferer weeps tears which presently become a discharge that excoriates the skin and leaves bald spots unless you promptly wipe it away. Often the cornea looks quite opaque. Mild conjunctivitis can be relieved by bathing the eyes with a warm solution of boric acid and water and keeping the cat from the light. Of course she will try to scratch the affected parts, and of course this must be prevented. There are little wire eye guards for the purpose, but a light bandage will serve.
There is a purulent conjunctivitis which attacks kittens, and, less often, cats. It is a painful malady, with a thick discharge, and sometimes blindness follows. The eyes of young kittens should be carefully looked to for signs of congenital disease, though to be sure this does not often occur. A kitten's eyes should open when it is nine days old, but in rare instances, as I have already said, nature must be aided by gentle rubbing and bathing, or possibly an operation.
Keratitis is an inflammation of the cornea. It is sometimes found in a tubercular cat, but it has other causes. Fighting toms have gotten it from a wellplaced jab of an opponent's paw. The worst case I ever saw was in a grocer's cat that had been trapped in a smoky fire in the store. Like conjunctivitis, keratitis makes the eye red and angry and brings a slight film over the ball. For slight cases the treatment is the same, but there is an ulcerative form that calls for a veterinarian.
Trichiatis, or ingrowing lashes on the eyelid, is an annoying trouble, which we rarely recognize, thinking that our pet has a cold. Fannie Hurst, the novelist, tells how she learned that her cat was suffering from a troublesome eyelash by having one of her own. She remarked to her doctor that her Persian's eye was watering just as hers did, and he, being a true healer, immediately examined the cat, found that it had the same ailment, and treated it with the same care that he had shown the mistress.
There are many types of ophthalmitis, or inflammation of the eye, as many as there are parts to this intricate organ. In any of them it is important to keep the eye aseptic, and it is a good plan to give the patient a laxative. But if your cat's eyes are affected, it is best to take it to a veterinary, for something serious may be on the way. For example, cases are known in which choroiditis, or inflammation of the choroid, the thin vascular coating that nourishes the retina and lenses, was the first symptom of tuberculosis.
Entropion is a curious disease. It is an inversion of the eyelid, and is sometimes so complete that it shuts off the sight. I knew a dog who was born with it and never saw until, when he was four years old, a surgeon took a piece out of the upper eyelid, drawing it up, and enabled him to see. I never knew a cat to have it so badly, but they do have it. Nothing helps but an operation, and it must be very skillfully performed or the result is permanently disfiguring.
The haw, the cat's inner eyelid, is very useful when it behaves. This membrane is the White Wings of the eye, rising from the inner corner and sweeping over the ball, clearing away dust and moistening the cornea. But sometimes it protrudes unduly, and makes your pet squint-eyed. This may be caused by a tumor, or by anemia, or by some condition that cannot be ascertained. In some cases astringent applications, with a tonic, will reduce the haw, but others require an operation.
Cataracts are not so frequent with cats as with dogs. There is really nothing to be done about them. Removing a cataract is a ticklish job, and cats do not stand operations well. Cataracts come mostly to old cats; when they are old, too, they are likely to have a blurring of vision, an increasing difficulty in focusing. When my Mimi was seventeen years old she could hardly see me across the room, but she could come to me unerringly. Something told her where I was, and custom enabled her to get about the house without trouble.
Nature is kind, making one sense help out another. When medicine and surgery can help our pets, by all means let us invoke them, but sometimes it is best just to make the animal as comfortable as possible and let nature take its course.