Ask the Vet

Pinkeye Possibility Needs Second Look

Pinkeye, or Infectious Bovine Keratoconjunctivitis (IBK), is common and costly in the cattle business. It can decrease milk production and lead to weight loss. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Claire Vath)


I bought five heifers at auction, and about five months later one of them with a white face developed runny eyes. It does not look like pinkeye. We have never had pinkeye on the property in 25 years. Is there some disease that was brought onto the property with this calf? There also is a possibility its eye was damaged in the fence row or brush.


First let's review what pinkeye is and is not. Pinkeye is a generic term applied to all red inflamed eyes, but most people use the term to refer to a specific disease, Infectious Bovine Keratoconjunctivitis (IBK). This disease is one of the most common of beef cattle worldwide.

The primary cause of IBK is the bacterium Moraxella bovis. It causes an inflammation of both the conjunctiva (the thin layer covering the white of the eye) and the cornea (the clear part of the eye). IBK is a costly disease that can lead to decreased milk production and weight loss. Left untreated some eyes develop deep ulcers and rupture. In other cases, scaring is so severe cattle are effectively blind. Those that recover from severe cases of IBK are more prone to develop squamous cell carcinoma (cancer eye) later in life.

There are other causes of the generic "pinkeye". Infectious Bovine Rhinotracheitis (IBR) causes severe conjunctivitis and edema of the cornea, but ulceration of the cornea is uncommon. Mycoplasma spp may cause conjunctivitis of cattle. Moraxella bovoculi is thought by some to be another cause of IBK and by others to cause conjunctivitis only. Dust, irritation from flies, tall weeds and grasses, bright sun, poor nutrition (especially mineral nutrition) and stress from shipping can all lead to conjunctivitis. Many times these conditions open the door for Moraxella bovis infections.

I am sure you are aware of the risks of bringing something home from the sale barn that you did not pay for and did not want. Without looking, I cannot be sure of what is going on in this case. IBK, IBR and other contagious diseases typically affect more than one animal in the herd. White-faced cattle are more prone to eye problems. And if only one animal is affected, an injury has to be considered.

I recommend having your veterinarian examine the heifer and try to make a diagnosis. At the same time, have him or her review your herd health program. This would include a review of your biosecurity to prevent introduction of diseases into your herd and your vaccination program to further protect them.