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The Easiest Way to Treat Pink Eye

By   /  April 30, 2018  /  25 Comments

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When visiting Greg and Jan Judy a few weeks ago, I asked Greg “What do you do about pinkeye?”

“We don’t treat it,” he said. “We found that if we treated it the cow got better in 2 or 3 weeks. If we didn’t treat it, the cow got better in 2 or 3 weeks.”

His response sounds like an old saying I heard from a South Dakota rancher, “You can treat pinkeye and it will get better in a week. Left untreated it will be better in 7 days.”

Causes of Pinkeye

Moraxella bovis is the bacterium responsible for pinkeye and is found in the eyes of recovered and healthy cattle alike. But the bacteria alone doesn’t necessarily cause pinkeye. It seems that there needs to be some kind of added irritation. So flies moving from cow to cow, tall grasses rubbing their eyes, dust and foreign objects in the eye, and ultraviolet (UV) sunlight are all considered potential factors in pinkeye. This last makes breeds without eyelid pigment more susceptible. Calves, especially bull calves, are also more likely to catch pinkeye while adult cattle develop protective antibodies on their eyes’ surfaces.

According to Kevin Gould of Michigan State University Extension, how well an animal works through pinkeye can be influenced by things like “nutritional imbalances, such as deficiencies of protein, energy, vitamins (especially vitamin A if the forage is lower quality) and minerals (especially copper and selenium).” He adds that, “The presence of other organisms such as the infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) virus, mycoplasma, chlamydia and Branhemella ovis will increase the incidence and severity of disease.

So what do you do?

Out of curiosity, I visited a listserv where farmers and ranchers were sharing their experience with pinkeye. All agreed that prevention was the best cure, describing the different rubs and fly tags they use. A South African farmer wrote, “What really worked for me was a farmers recipe I got mixing 5 liters of petroleum gel with 150 ml of Zeropar from Bayer Animal Health and rubbing it on the animal’s face, one handful will do.” (Zeropar is only available in South Africa and it is a dip or hand spray that controls itch mites, ticks, lice, blowflies and screw-worm infestations.) A Tennessee farmer said keeping cattle from spending too much time around water was a key. “If they have access to a pond, try to stop that because that only makes the flies worse and almost impossible to fight.”

One fellow complained that he thought the vaccines for pinkeye were “water,” and he’s not too far wrong. “The pinkeye vaccine has been disappointing as the sole means of controlling pinkeye,” says Gould. “There are over 20 strains of the M. bovis bacteria and continuous mutation occurs in the bacteria. While the vaccines contain the most common strains of M. bovis, they do not contain all the strains that occur.”

As For Treatment…

If you don’t go for no treatment at all, antibiotics are the most recommended treatment. Gould recommends tetracyclines at 4.5 cc per 100 pounds of bodyweight injected subcutaneously or in the thin membrane that covers the white of the eye (the bulbar conjuctiva). Sometimes a patch is added to keep the eye from being further irritated.

On another listserv I read a discussion of salt as a treatment. The writer said old timers told her to throw salt at the animals’ eyes. A respondent told her not to do that as it just makes the cows mad, and suggested, like Greg, to not treat it at all and the animals would get well.

Preventing Pinkeye

Gould agrees with the farmers and ranchers on the importance of prevention and says, “Management practices that reduce the risk factors associated with pinkeye are the most effective tools in decreasing the incidence of disease.”

Gould suggests a variety of pours and rubs to kill and control flies, but for many of you, concerned about how dung beetles and other insects contribute to your soil health, that may not be an option. We’ve covered other methods, from culling to improve parasite resistant animals, to rotational grazing that takes into account the 10-21 day fly life cycle ensuring that animals move before the flies find a new host.

Here’s more on preventing Pinkeye:

Fly Management to Reduce Pinkeye Problems

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  • Published: 2 years ago on April 30, 2018
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  • Last Modified: July 22, 2020 @ 1:32 pm
  • Filed Under: Livestock

About the author

Publisher, Editor and Author

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.


  1. Harvey Lee says:

    I am suffering from pink eye and was looking for such kind of info. I like the info provided by you Thanks for sharing.

  2. Chad says:

    I had a buddy helping me Dr cows last year, and he said his family has been using the salt trick forever with good results. We just ran the infected cattle through the head gate, poured some salt in our palm, held the eye wide open, and stuck it on there. It really worked great! Some people said that it’s cruel, and that they wouldn’t do something to their cattle that they wouldn’t do to themselves, but I’d take some salt to my eye if it meant I kept my vision! My best guess is that it changes the pH of the eye and makes it a harsh environment for the bacteria. Any scientific insight would be good to hear. Regardless, it worked for my herd. I like that it’s simple, cheap, and no antibiotics or other drugs.

  3. Kathy Voth says:

    One of our readers, Joe Sellers, shared the following by email to us and said we could post it here:

    I have a real problem with the “ignore it” philosophy with pink eye. Yes – with some cases that are not extreme that may not be too costly – but in some cases it is widespread and creates great pain for the animals. If you believe the treatments do no good you waited too long. It is your job as an animal caretaker to relieve pain and take care of the animals. Blind or vision impaired animals also are wilder and more dangerous to handle. Weaning weights can easily be 30-70 pounds lighter for infected vs non-infected cattle.

    Prevention is important, so reducing the amount of irritants (clipping pastures and controlling flies, etc.) and having a good mineral are important. Unfortunately that is not a 100% cure all – I have seen well managed pastures with good fly control and great immune status with lots of trouble and some with shoulder high grass and seedheads with no problems. It also is not a large herd versus small or organic versus conventional issue. Any herd can have trouble with pink eye. Since there are many factors involved it is not easy to cure. Extreme cases may require treating the entire herd.

    Don’t use the excuse “it makes no difference” to justify doing nothing.

  4. Greg told me recently that he has all but eradicated pinkeye in his herd by going from once a day moves to 3-5x per day moves.
    I think theres a lot of truth to how vitamin/mineral malnutrition is a predisposing factor to pinkeye. The group of heifers I just bought have some symptoms, and they have been absolutely hogging down the copper and vitamin A in my mineral box.

  5. Doug says:

    Moraxella bovoculi

  6. Jodi Kendrew says:

    A new strain of pinkeye has emerged: as reported in the article, historically the main cause of infectious bovine keratoconjunctivitis (aka pinkeye) in cattle was Moraxella bovis. Unfortunately for cattle and cattle producers, Western Canada has identified the related bacteria Moraxella bovoculi as an additional cause of pinkeye. Moraxella bovoculi outbreaks are very aggressive and do not respond well to treatment. The symptoms are virtually identical as Moraxella bovis infection. In my own herd, I have had morbidity rates (percentage of the populations with symptoms of disease) of 100%, and animals having clinical symptoms more than once and in more than one eye. Animals severely affected appear to sometimes become carriers, shedding bacteria during times of stress. It is fair to say the Moraxella bovoculi outbreaks in our herd have been equally bad in winter (REAL winter!! NO FLIES) as in summer, and in the summer we noted no difference with fly control vs no fly control.

    As discussed by previous posters, ensuring your herd is not deficient in vitamins and minerals is also very important at this time to aid the animal’s immune system.

    If you are experiencing a severe outbreak, consult your veterinarian to discuss diagnostics and subsequently treatment options……you may need to handle a Moraxella bovoculi outbreak differently than one caused by Moraxella bovis.

  7. Wayne Heggemeier says:

    Me, I was a long-time sheep farmer. Don’t remember who suggested it but I would squirt a CC or so of ‘Combiotic’ or Pen G directly onto the infected eye. Took a lot less time than 7 days to clear up the infection and it was something that everybody has on-hand in their vet supply closet.

  8. richard parrott says:

    way to go again Kathy on timely articles… ….I guess I should be getting up earlier to read!!.
    In a discussion with a Hollister Idaho vet at the twin falls sale barn..
    pink eye was terrible 3 years ago. A shorthorn bull my son purchased in Utah and introduced to north of buhl Idaho .(.lots of seep water ie springs below the canyon rim )..the bull had his eyes sown shut soon ..he was in misery.
    20 percent of the replacement heifer run in buhl had a problem
    the next year one pinkeye . these heifers grew up in the desert 13 miles south both years …so slow water is a problem
    anyway the vet who runs registered symmatol said the obvious..
    put your fly tags backwards so they don’t hit the cow in the eye
    I seldom treat and will continue to never treat .
    20 plus years ago peer pressure and political connections caused grasshoppers to be sprayed mid june with malathion and a DC 3 at 300 feet and the wind at 20 miles per hour. the crested seeded blm
    desert for 25 miles was the target…. honey bees were killed for 60 miles. the flys died and maybe grass hoppers too.I wasn’t seeing pink eye prior to that year.
    the year after spray much pinkeye and a 2 headed calf

  9. curt gesch says:

    Some organic dairy producers use the fly repellents from
    Crystal Creek (or similar products).

  10. vern brown says:

    We keep 200 organic dairy heifers that we custom graze. Sale barn glue and old jeans to cut for patches works for us. Not treating is not an option. Treated cattle get better much faster, at least for us.

  11. We treated pink eye by spraying a solution of Aloe Vera juice mixed with Garlic, Goldenseal and Ecchinaecca tincture directly into the eye, twice a day for a week. If you don’t do anything you run the risk of sometimes loosing an eye. Granted, very labor intensive, as affected animals need to be penned up.

    Since we offered to the calves free choice a mix of salt, kelp and monocalcium phosphate, the problem went away. Having a closed herd helps too, as new animals bring new strains of the pink eye bacteria.

    • mannafarms.com, in Ohio uses sea kelp, redmond 90 salt ,and diatamacious earth mixture for daily free choice and also the separate mineral feeder will have higher 2 calcium to 1 phos. mixed with sea kelp and diatamacious earth, we are a cert. organic 100% grass fed closed herd with 20 mother cows crossing the continental breeds of Piedmontese X Gelbvieh, from Italy and Germany’s good on grass gainer cattle, averaging 23 months from birth to processing with avg. hanging wghts at 680 lbs. to 720 lbs., only recall one pinkeye about 15 years ago, lost that eye but nothing spread to others…..dominic, 330 719 3492

  12. Dwight says:

    Are there any studies on the preventive quality of feeding kelp to cattle as the sales representatives for kelp claim it prevents pinkeye ?

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hmm…I don’t know. We can look into it. Thanks for letting us know!

    • Tom Krawiec says:

      Dwight, Kelp Meal is my go to remedy & prevention of pinkeye. The results have been stunning! Fifteen years ago we had a herd of 950 feedlot heifers arrive with a bit of pinkeye. In a few days there were ~250 infected. A lot to treat so i gave Kelp Meal a try. We calculated 8oz/hd and fed it free choice over three days. After the treatment there were only four animals still infected. I don’t recall where the 8oz dose came from, but it certainly works. I still use Kelp Meal and put it out free choice for a few days if the animals start showing signs of weepy eyes or they are going into tall rank grass.

      • Kathy Voth says:

        Hmmm…After Dwight wrote I did a very quick search and here’s what I found in a 2017 paper by Anna Moore at the Kellogg Rural Leaders Programme. I’ll gather more details and look for additional research and probably share it as an article so that it reaches everyone interested.
        “It is a widely held belief by Organic American dairy farmers that supplementing kelp into the diet of cattle reduces the susceptibility to pinkeye due to increased Iodine levels in the tears. It was very difficult to find scientific evidence to support this argument. One study that took place last year at the University of Minnesota stated nothing was known about the Iodine concentration in tears and the conclusion was that cattle fed kelp (Ascophyllum nodosum) for 30 days and no effect on Moraxella bovis (M.bovis) bacteria, the main agent that causes pinkeye.”

      • Andy says:

        That severe of an outbreak could have also been IBR. Treatment for both are very similar, with the same results.

        • Tom Krawiec says:

          I assure you Andy it was not IBR. The only reason I used that example was to demonstrate the efficacy of Kelp Meal. Over the last 15 years Kelp Meal has taken care of pink eye for myself and several neighbours on numerous occasions. I do realize treating an animal gives us a sense of accomplishment. However, treating individuals takes labour which is usually a limiting factor on most operations. Putting out free choice Kelp Meal is a quick, simple solution & from what i have seen, a more effective treatment than patches, antibiotics, sprays, etc.

  13. Charlie Kraus says:

    The clear part of the eye has no blood supply.

    That tissue is nourished by tears.

    If that tissue is damaged, a new network of blood vessels grows into the damaged area of the eye to carry out repairs. Ths makes the eye appear pink.

    Therefore, the “pink” of pinkeye is not a symptom of the disease, but instead an indication of healing.

    Therefore “treatment” can only help the healing already process already ongoing.

  14. We found Pink Eye patches at Tractor Supply Co in the US. They come with a glue that keeps the patch on for a week or more then it falls off on its own. They work great and while not preventing the problem, they help to protect the eye as it heals and they keep the insects off to hopefully reduce spreading to other animals.

  15. Oogie McGuire says:

    We’ve had the occasional outbreak of pinkeye in our sheep flock. One summer we had it go round and round with sheep getting pinkeye, getting well and getting reinfected. A few sheep never did get infected even when kept in the same pen as animals that did. We ended up separating the flock into several different experimental groups. Sheep were randomly assigned to the groups although I did make an effort to have each group have animals of both sexes and a variety of ages and made sure that each group had a few unaffected individuals. One was treated with antibiotic spray per the vet, one was left untreated, and one had their faces scrubbed with Johnson’s baby shampoo with careful attention made to cleaning and scrubbing out the suborbital pits. Sheep faces and heads were washed to behind the ears and dried off with a clean hand towel for each sheep. Sheep were housed with some individuals in all experimental groups in each pen. The untreated group tended to stay infected or would get better only to get reinfected again in a few days. The antibiotic group all initially got better but then most sheep succumbed again in a few days or weeks. The group with cleaned faces mostly got pinkeye again that summer although a few individuals needed a second wash a week after the first one. After the entire event I measured the depth of the suborbital pits in all the sheep that kept getting reinfected, in the sheep that had fewer reinfections and the sheep that never did get infected. There was a direct correlation between the depth of the suborbital pits and pinkeye infection. Sheep with deep pits both got reinfected more and had more severe cases. So I started a selection program to select for shallower depth. I did that for several years, it’s a fairly easy thing to change and during that time if we had any cases of pinkeye we’d scrub the sheep face and that would cure it. Now we haven’t had any pinkeye in any sheep in over 10 years. I wish I had done a bit more to make the experiment worthy of publication but I did do the best I could to make it random and accurate and the results proved that for whatever reason simply cleaning off the faces of infected sheep works.

  16. Ben Hartwell says:

    I like any type of portable mineral feeder that effectively gets backrubber insecticide on their face. I’ve used the round rubber ones with the “Fly Killer Kover” which worked for a few yars. I currently have two of the Super Heavy Duty mineral feeders made by Tarter. They have a resivoir you put in the opening during fly season that has a modified mop serving as the applicator. I only get about one season out of the mop applicator, and Tarter charges way too much money for them, plus they have to be special ordered through a dealer. Tractor Supply is a dealer by the way.
    Over ten years ago when my herd was smaller I had a terrible time with pinkeye, one big part of the problem was utilizing a permenant waterer rather then portable ones. Setting up pastures so they always came back to the same spot. I was treating a majority of the herd as it swept through. One steer ended up rupturing his cornea causing the eye to bulge out and couldn’t completely close his eyelid. I ended up putting a fly mask on him which he appreciated.
    Between the face application, good minerals, portable water, and frequent rotations, I haven’t treated pinkeye in a few years. When I do, I opt for a long acting tetracyclne like Tetradure or Noramycin which typically clears up with a single treatment. I like to get the antibiotic in there early to prevent the spread.

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