What Causes Dog Tear Stains? Plus Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention
March 1, 2021
If you’re reading this, you’re probably frustrated with your pet’s tear stains. Maybe you’ve tried every over-the-counter solution, changed your pet’s food and have been vigilant about cleaning, all to no avail. So, what can you do?
Tear staining, more often than not, is noticed on white pets but can affect any color pet. It makes the color of the coat around the eyes a brown, red, or copper color. It has always been believed that tear staining comes from epiphora (or excessive tear production) – but that’s not always the case.
There are two main factors to consider with tear staining:
- A blocked or maldeveloped nasolacrimal duct (where your pet’s tears are formed), can cause overproduction of tears that can lead to tear stains.
- Certain breeds have a greater deposition for tear staining. The most commonly affected are small breeds with longer hair coats. Some examples would be Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apso, Bichon Fries, Maltese, Toy Poodle and others.
It’s a common misnomer that the only cause of tear staining in our pets is the overproduction of their tears. Aside from a blocked tear duct and breed, there are plenty of other causes that complicate the main factors listed above:
- Corneal injury or ulceration
- Entropion (eyelashes are turned inwards and rub against the eyeball)
- Infection of the eye
- Ear infections (bacteria, yeast)
- Certain medications
- pH imbalance
- Red meat in the diet (iron and other minerals)
- Poor diet (e.g., excess carbohydrates, vitamin or mineral insufficiency/excess)
- Teething issues (especially in puppies)
- The use of plastic food/water bowls
- Water Quality
Why are tear stains brown?
The brown color of tear stains comes from porphyrin – iron-containing molecules that come from break down of hemoglobin. These molecules can be excreted through the GI tract, saliva, urine, and tears! The majority of pets have these molecules in their tears, but some pets have more molecules than others, which results in staining.
Prevention & Treatment:
- Keep the hair around the eyes trimmed shorter than the rest of your pet’s coat, as this can lead to hair getting into your pet’s eyes, causing irritation and inflammation.
- Examine the appropriateness and quality of your pet food. Foods that contain high moisture, quality protein, and minimal carbohydrates are generally recommended. Since carbohydrates enhance inflammation properties throughout the body, pay attention to how much of their diet (treats included) is carbohydrate-based. Lastly, avoid any preservatives, fillers, and additives. Avoiding these types of ingredients can help boost your pet’s resistance to inflammatory reactions.
- Focus on your pet’s pH levels. pH imbalances are an important aspect when addressing the quality of a pet’s diet. A high stomach pH can usually be attributed to certain medications (i.e., omeprazole and/or Pepcid) prescribed by a veterinarian. These medications have a tendency to lessen pepsin (digestive enzyme in the stomach that breaks down proteins and polypeptide) levels. Lower pepsin levels can eventually lead to malabsorption/maldigestion.
- Consider protein source in your pet’s food. For example, red meats are rich in iron and can contribute to tear staining in some pets. If your pet is prone to tear stains, this may be something to eliminate to determine if it helps. The reason red meat contributes to tear staining is that their body works harder to break down the additional iron and magnesium. For dogs with liver concerns, this can put additional stress on the liver. As mentioned previously, excess iron intake can lead to the excess porphyrin – the compound responsible for the brown color in tear stains.
- Evaluate the quality of drinking water available to your pet. Tap water, especially well water, usually contains both iron and magnesium. As mentioned earlier, these contribute to the build of porphyrins. Therefore, providing your pet with filtered water is best to help prevent or treat tear stains.
- Use a specially formulated dry shampoo or waterless shampoo to clean around eyes. Dry shampoos and waterless shampoos are recommended to help clean up existing tear stains because they allow the user more control than traditional shampoos. This can come in handy when trying to cleanse the area around sensitive eyes to avoid irritation.
- Pay attention to the material your pet’s bowls are made of. Plastic bowls are not recommended because they tend to harbor bacteria more so than glass, ceramic, or stainless steel. Any bacteria in your pet’s bowl can be easily transferred to your pet’s coat, which can cause infection. Regardless of material, it is always best to clean your pet’s bowl regularly with soap and water to avoid the spread of bacteria.
- Surgery (to treat entropion). In order to work closely to the eyes, this surgery requires your pet to undergo anesthetic gasses. The surgeon then will remove a section of skin on the eyelid to reverse the inward rolling. Sometimes, depending on the case this procedure may need to be repeated.
- Medications, minerals, and vitamins are also available to help with any type of infections/ulcerations.
- Overuse of antibiotics can also contribute, as these can disrupt the normal healthy bacteria in the gut which help to reduce inflammation. If you find your pet is often on antibiotics it is best to work with your vet to determine the cause of recurring infections to avoid overuse.
Nootie offers an affordable and veterinary-quality pre-soaked wipe that helps to remove buildup and prevent staining around the eye.
EarthBath also offers a waterless eye wipe, although it’s not formulated specifically for tear stains. This product is made with natural and organic ingredients that helps provide a preventative and maintenance solution for less severe staining.
Remember the ears! A high-quality ear cleaning solution can help remove buildup and keep ears and eyes clean. Some ear related issues can contribute to inflammation, including the eyes. Some of our favorites include EarthBath, Earth Animal & Kenic. For stubborn ear buildup, or dogs who spend a lot of time swimming we like Liquid Health’s ear cleaning solution. Our team would be happy to help you pick out the best option for your situation.
Omega 3 fatty acids are known to be lacking in most diets for pets and even humans. A high-quality fish oil that is made under high standards can help reduce inflammation. In addition, human studies do show some benefit to essential fatty acid supplementation and eye problems. High quality fish oils are packed in glass (and never plastic), are stored in the fridge and are sourced ethically and responsibly. Some of our recommendations include Nordic Naturals, Thorne and Omega Alpha which can be found on our shelves.
Regular exercise is important! Just like humans, canines and felines benefit from regular exercise to reduce stress, maintain a healthy weight and promote proper digestion. Exercise promotes blood flow, oxygenation and therefore helps to effectively cleanse all organ systems, including the skin and liver! In addition, regular exercise can help keep bodyweight in check. Excess bodyweight – even a pound or two in cats and dogs – can increase inflammation on many levels. It’s a simple and seemingly small detail that makes a world of difference!
Reduce or eliminate high carbohydrate snacks. Instead, opt for freeze-dried meat, jerky and chews instead of biscuits. Most pet biscuits contain very little meat (if any at all) and are instead filled with flour, tapioca, molasses, maple syrup, potatoes and other starches and sugars. These directly influence the amount of inflammation within the body. Some of our favorite pet treats include Small Batch, NOBL and Nandi freeze-dried. You can even supplement some frozen raw food as treats for a healthy and high value treat! Our team will be happy to show you their favorites too – just ask!
Be attentive to additives/preservatives, red meat and excess carbs in your pet’s food. These often tend to cause inflammation and irritation, resulting in tear stains. A fresh, well-balanced diet is best in pet’s who suffer from tear staining! Just remember that it may take several weeks to months to see a difference – patience and consistency will eventually pay off!
About the Author:
Meet Morgan, a Veterinary Assistant/Technician at Branford Veterinary Hospital and a Pet Problem Solver at NorthPoint Pets & Company! She is currently enrolled in a veterinary technician program at San Juan College and will one day be a Certified Technician. Her interests in the animal world are mainly behavior & nutrition. She has a Pit Mix named Tyson and a Dalmatian named Pongo who keep her on her toes learning more and more every day.
- Bhargava R, Kumar P, Kumar M, Mehra N, Mishra A. A randomized controlled trial of omega-3 fatty acids in dry eye syndrome. Int J Ophthalmol. 2013;6(6):811-6. doi: 10.3980/j.issn.2222-3959.2013.06.13. PubMed PMID: 24392330.