Because tear staining in dogs is so visible, many dog owners go for a quick cosmetic fix. However, if your dog has tear stains, you should be aware that a number of factors can cause these unsightly stains, including infections and other eye-related health issues. There is no single cause or cure and every dog is different, so this is a great topic to write down and remember to ask your vet about during your pet’s regular annual check up.
The best course of action is to prevent aggravating factors, instead of simply removing the signs of irritation with an over-the-counter product. Tear stains can result in an odor, infection, and irritation that are not comfortable for anyone!
For starters, some breeds are more prone to tear stains. Breeds known to commonly show tear staining include:
- Bichon Frise
- Shih Tzu
- Lhasa Apso
- Cocker Spaniel
- Cavalier King Charles Spaniel
Other breeds are susceptible to tear staining, but toy and miniature breeds tend to be the most common.
If you’ve ever owned any of the above, you have probably experienced epiphora. This is the medical term for insufficient tear drainage, which causes tears to overflow onto the face. The resulting dampness is an open door for bacteria and yeast to grow, which causes irritation and that brown or red color around the eyes.
Diagnosing the Cause of Your Dog’s Eye Stains
First we need to understand what type of tear staining your dog has. Have you noticed the stains have a red or brown tint to them?
If the stain is a reddish color, it is simply porphyrins leaving the body their natural way: through urine, saliva, and tears. Porphyrins are pigmented, naturally-occurring chemical compounds. Porphyrin compounds include molecules containing iron. A common porphyrin is heme, the pigment in red blood cells. When porphyrins are left on light-colored fur for any length of time, they cause stains that are difficult to remove. They will also darken in sunlight due to their natural composition.
Since porphyrins are also present in your dog’s saliva, as well as his tears, you may also see a reddish stain in that spot they’re licking and around their mouth. If you notice your dog is excessively licking itself, take a moment to review our article on How to Stop Your Dog from Licking His Paws to determine why. If your dog seems to have excessive staining around his mouth, this may indicate periodontal disease, and you may want to consult our article on a How to Care for Your Dog’s Teeth.
If you notice the staining has a brownish tint to it and/or a noticeable odor, this can be an indicator of a yeast infection. If your pup is also having ear issues or prone to ear infections, some vets advise that excessive tearing might be related to an ear infection. You can read more about the different types of dog ear infections here. It’s always best to bring your pet to the vet for a proper diagnosis to find out for sure.
Tear staining is more prominent in white and lighter colored dogs, simply because it’s easier to see.
Beware of the many products out there claiming they can remove tearstains. They can be a ‘quick fix’ that masks the problem, instead of treating it at the source. Many of these products also contain chemicals and antibiotics that are not approved for use on dogs and cats by the FDA. (This warning and an excellent comprehensive article on the topic of ear stains can be found in this article by Dr. Karen Becker.)
Beware of the antibiotics tetracycline and tylosin. They have weaseled their way into over the counter products marketed to remove tearstains. They should only be used if prescribed by your vet. These antibiotics are a short-term solution that can actually encourage more yeast and bacteria to grow.
Now that we’ve discussed what’s causing your dog’s tear stains, we can address how to tackle the source rather than just bleaching them away.
The easiest way to prevent tear staining is to keep up with daily maintenance and appointments with your groomer.
Use a cotton pad, soft jersey cloth (like a piece of a clean T-shirt), or a clean finger to cleanse under the eye twice a day. Also check for stray hairs wandering into the eyes.
Some Do’s and Don’ts:
DON’T use bleach, lemon, topical apple cider vinegar, milk of magnesia, hydrogen peroxide, Gold Bond, Tums, powders, make up remover, or human eye drops.
After wetting the tear -stained surface, carefully use an eyebrow brush, flea comb, or clean soft toothbrush to brush out any dirt or dust. Then rinse and dry. Please exercise extreme care to avoid inadvertently poking your dog in the eye if he moves, and be very careful not to get anything in his eyes.
Keep up with appointments with your groomer. Most of the breeds which are susceptible to tear stains are not big shedders and do better with regular grooming. Visit your groomer at a minimum of once a month, and at maximum every 6 – 8 weeks. The frequency varies depending on the breed, and your dog’s individual needs. When your pet’s hair grows long and close to the eye, it causes irritation and excessive tearing. We strongly advise seeking assistance from a professional groomer, and not attempting to tackle the situation on your own without advise. A dog could move suddenly, and irreversible damage may occur if you try to trim too close to their eyes.
If you’ve attempted these options, and are still experiencing problems with your dog’s tear stains, there are two main causes to consider: a natural response to external irritants, or a medical or genetic issue. In this case, take your dog to to the vet or to see a veterinary ophthalmologist, especially if the discharge is yellow or green. This could be an indication of a bigger health issue or an infection.
A Responses to External Irritants
If your dog is still a puppy, tear staining is common when they are teething and should go away with time. Please do NOT treat puppies with antibiotics to stop tear staining.
Treating the Source
Let’s take a look at your dog’s surroundings. Tear staining can be a result of allergies, diet, an abrupt life style change, or a smoky or dusty environment.
Dogs, like humans, can have allergies too. Has there been a recent change in their living conditions, or are they now being exposed to new particles in their environment? These factors can be the cause of tear staining. Examples include a move to a new house, new furniture or carpet, pollen, the change of seasons, a change in their diet, exposure to new pets or humans, and so on. Another good rule of thumb is to change your air filters in your home every three months to prevent exposure to unwelcome particles in the air.
There is no right or wrong diet to eliminate tear staining, as every dog is different and requires unique care. A wholesome, well-balanced meal is best. This can be either home made or a high-quality commercially made feed. If you are going to change your dog’s diet, make the transition slowly. Tear staining can occur in adult dogs if there is a sudden change in their diet. If this happens, switch them back and slowly change out their food.
Is the mineral or iron content in your water high? Believe it or not, there’s a small chance that tear stains can be the result of your tap water. Tap water includes many different chemicals and impurities that are good for neither humans or our furry companions. It may be wise to switch them to bottled or filter water, and see if that makes a difference.
Stainless Steel is Superior
Another trigger is not just the food and water itself, but a plastic bowl. Some dogs have allergies to plastic, other times the plastic can crack and bacteria can linger in their dishes. It’s very important to wash your pet’s food dishes daily, and choose stainless steel, glass, or porcelain over plastic when possible.
Today’s canine diet can contain a wide variety of suspect added ingredients from commercial dog food brands. These ingredients, along with an overload of antibiotics that our pets may consume, can lead to many health issues, including allergies and yeast infections. Giving your pets probiotics can help balance the good and bad bacteria in their bodies.
Probiotics can be tremendously successful in not only treating tear stains, but improving your dog’s overall health. There is a wide variety of probiotics for dogs available online and at most large pet suppliers like PetSmart and PetSupermarket. If you’re already taking probiotics yourself, your vet may be able to advise you about whether you can use the same product and give you specifics on adjusting the dose for your dog based on its weight.
Apple Cider Vinegar (added to dog’s water)
Apple cider vinegar can actually kill some bacteria, so this is effective in some dogs, and ineffective in others. It truly depends on what’s going on inside of your individual pup!
It’s worth a try to add a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar to your dog’s water daily. Due to the antimicrobial properties in the vinegar, it increases the pH level in their water, helping to battle bacteria that causes tear staining.
Parsley and Other Supplements
You can give your dog fresh parsley or parsley flakes with their food. This boosts their immune system, and has antimicrobial properties. Parsley contains fiber, protein, vitamins A and C, and has calcium, potassium, iron, magnesium, and phosphorous.
Give your dog freshly chopped parsley once or twice a week, or mix parsley flakes in with their food daily in small amounts.
Do not add parsley to your dog’s food if she is pregnant, or if they have kidney problems because too much can cause an upset stomach and can be toxic in large amounts.
Other natural supplements such as olive leaf, milk thistle, dandelion, colostrum, and chlorophyll have been known to decrease tear staining in dogs.
What You Need to Know About Epiphora
Dogs can experience this due to an abnormal drainage system that causes the tears to overflow onto their face, as we spoke about above, called epiphora. There are small holes that drain tears down the throat from their eyes, and when these holes are blocked from a previous infection, scar tissue, or a foreign object covering them, your dog can experience tear staining. It can also be caused by your dog’s genetic make up.
Medical and Genetic Causes
Many of the problems with the tear drainage path are simply genetic, and cannot be fixed by surgery. Make sure the tears are clear, and your dog’s eyes aren’t red or bloodshot. If they are, head to vet for further inspection.
Inverted eyelids, or eyelashes, can grow at odd angles, guiding small hairs to rub against their eyes. These hairs cause excessive tears due to the irritation, and they block the drainage path. This leaves the tears with nowhere else to go, but out onto their face. This can be surgically corrected if your vet has confirmed this is the cause.
Brachycephalic breeds are subject to tear staining. Brachycephalic breeds are those bred to have relatively short muzzles and noses. You’ll recognize them easily by this shared facial profile, and they include the Pug, Boston Terrier, English Bulldog, French Bulldog, Shih Tzu and Pekingese. An unfortunate side effect of the breed trait is shallow eye sockets and protruding eyes. Their eyelids sometimes do not close all the way, which increases the chances of foreign objects and irritants entering their eyes. Shallow eye sockets also mean there is not enough room for the tears to drain properly, resulting in tear staining. If they arise, make sure to treat infections and glaucoma the instruction of your vet.
Vet Testing for Drainage Problems
If it isn’t a more serious health issue, your vet can use a fluorescein dye to test for improper drainage. They place a drop of the stain in their eye, and watch where it ends up. It takes a few minutes, and if it drains into the nose like it’s supposed to, that rules out a drainage issue. If it doesn’t drain into the nose, it can mean the passage is blocked. You would then want to proceed with your vet to investigate the issue further.
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