Tear stains in dogs

Written by Dr Andrew Miller MRCVSDr Andrew Miller MRCVS is an expert veterinary working in the field for over 10 years after graduating from Bristol University. Andy fact checks and writes for Pure Pet Food while also working as a full time veterinarian. Pure Pet FoodPure Pet Food are the experts in healthy dog food and healthy dogs featured in media outlets such as BBC, Good Housekeeping and The Telegraph. Working with high profile veterinary professionals and nutritionists, Pure Pet Food are changing dog food for the better. - Our editorial process

Tear stains in dogs are a common problem, visible as reddish-brown marks around the dog’s eyes, most easily seen on dogs with white or light-coloured hair. They are usually the result of the dog producing too many tears or having an inability for the tears to drain away as normal.

What are tear stains in dogs?

Some dogs produce too much of a pigment-containing molecule that can be found in dog tears and cause the staining. When the dog’s body breaks down red blood cells, a naturally occurring molecule remains as a waste product. These molecules, known as porphyrins, contain iron, which is responsible for the red colouration, which gets darker when exposed to sunlight. Porphyrins are usually excreted via the digestive system but in dogs, they are also removed from the body in urine, saliva and tears. Darker coated dogs can also suffer from tear stains, but the marks are harder to see on the dark hair. It is a good idea to check your dog’s eyes regularly for any problems.

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There are a number of potential reasons for dogs’ eyes to water excessively, some of which are serious medical conditions. For this reason, it is important for go to your vet so they can perform a check-up when the signs of dog tear stains are first noticed.

What causes tear stains in dogs?

The answer to what causes tear stains in dogs is usually an excessive amount of tears on the face, either from too many tears being produced or the tears not draining away properly. This could be the symptom of a serious medical condition or indicate an infection, so it is important to see your vet if you notice signs of tear stains for the first time.

Possible medical causes

Glaucoma – a serious condition that causes a build-up of pressure in the eye and can damage the optic nerve.

Eye infection – infections by bacteria, viruses or parasites can cause a discharge from the eye.

Conjunctivitis – inflammation in the eye’s lining can cause mucus, pus or discharge.

Ear infection – may cause the eye on the same side of the head to tear more than is usual.

Ingrown eyelashes – these can rub against the surface of the eye, causing irritation and damage.

Entropion – a condition where the eyelid rolls in, causing the eyelashes to rub against the eye and causing irritation.

Mechanical causes, due to the dog's body construction

Large tear glands – larger glands produce larger volumes of tears.

Small tear duct openings – each eye has a tube running from the eye into the nasal cavity to drain the excess tears via the nose. Small openings to these ducts reduce their effectiveness and the excess spills over into the hair.

Blocked tear ducts – as for small duct openings, blocked ducts cannot remove the excess liquid from the eye. Some breeds of dog such as Poodles and Cocker Spaniels have a tendency for the drainage holes not to develop properly.

Scarring – if there has been previous infection or eye damage, tear drainage may reduce.

Hair around the eyes – if hair keeps getting into the eyes, it can wick the tears away, drawing the moisture from the eye and down to the skin.

Shallow eye sockets – particularly in brachycephalic dogs (breeds with short muzzles such as Pugs, French Bulldogs or Pekingese), eyes can bulge and protrude, sometimes so much that the eyelids never close completely, even when sleeping.

Other possible causes:

Irritant exposure – irritants like dust or smoke can cause the eye to water attempting to remove the irritating substance.

Allergies – allergic reactions can cause the eye to water excessively. These allergies can be seasonal, something in the environment or a reaction to the dog’s food.

Poor diet and stress – Anxiety and stress can cause a number of issues. A poor-quality diet filled with unsuitable or indigestible ingredients places stress on the dog’s body. Cheap, low-quality foods can often be a problem.

Teething – when puppies are teething, they produce more tears and tear stains may become apparent. It is a good idea to have your vet check that there are no other issues causing the tears but, once they have finished teething, the problem often goes away.

Signs and symptoms of tear stains in dogss

The most obvious sign of tear stains in light coloured dogs are the red marks in the hair below each eye.

These are much harder to see in darker coated dogs, and it may be that the damp hair from excessive tear production or the tears being drawn away from the eye into the fur are the easiest symptoms to see. There may be a discharge from the eye, depending on the cause of the tears, but this does not happen in every case.

If your dog has stains that are brown rather than red, particularly if there is a noticeable odour, then they may have a yeast infection that can be caused by the skin being constantly damp under the fur.

How to treat tear stains in dogs

If the cause of dog tear stains is a medical one such as infection, your vet will prescribe medication as required to treat the condition. For cases such as entropion, the treatment may involve surgery to stop the eyelids rolling in.

In the case of allergies and irritants, once the allergen or irritant has been identified and removed then the excess tears should be reduced. Anti-histamines may be needed if it is not possible to remove an allergen completely. If the allergic reaction is due to something in the dog’s food, a switch to a good quality, balanced and species-appropriate, healthy food that is suitable for dogs with allergies or sensitivities will be easier on their system.

Some of the mechanical causes are permanent and so need management. Preventing tear stains in dogs with these kinds of problems involves keeping the face scrupulously clean. Wiping the face with a warm damp cloth, at least twice a day removes tears and reduces staining.

Keeping the area around the eyes trimmed will stop hair going into the eye to irritate it. This also stops tears keeping the skin damp, preventing secondary yeast infections. If not comfortable trimming your dog’s hair yourself, regular trips to the groomers may be required. You can use organic unrefined coconut oil for dog tear stains under the eyes, as it provides a gentle water repellent coating, stopping stains and protecting the skin. Use porcelain, glass or stainless steel food and water bowls, as plastic bowls can become damaged and harbour bacteria which may cause irritation.

Common advice on how to clean dog tear stains recommends warm water and cotton pads to clean the area, and this is the safest tip for how to remove dog tear stains naturally. If the stains are stubborn, a dilute boric acid solution like contact lens cleaning solution may help. There are many other tips given in various places on how to get rid of dog tear stains, but often include substances that may cause more harm than good.

What is the best dog food for tear stains?

First and foremost, a high-quality and filler-free diet has long been established as the best dog food for tear stains. Grains often irritate a dog’s digestive system and are common allergens, and such reactions cause excessive tear production. Similarly, if your dog has any sort of allergy or sensitivity, it can make them produce more tears and cause staining. Providing your pup with a nutritional diet that avoids common irritants like artificial additives will help to minimise the risks of irritation and excessive tears.

Sadly, some dogs simply have smaller ducts and shallow eye sockets, predisposing them to tear stains. Breeds like bulldogs and pugs are more likely to have blocked ducts or unsightly stains. Although food won’t help enlarge those ducts, it can help prevent problems that would further narrow them, such as sensitive skin. A quality, balanced diet will help to improve their overall health and strengthen their immune system to prevent future infections and irritations which can exacerbate the problem of tear stains.

As excessive tears are often caused by inflamed skin, it is important to find dog food that helps to alleviate the skin sensitivity. As Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS explains, “By treating the skin as a whole and improving any issues there, then hopefully you can open up those tear ducts and see some improvement.”

Treating and improving the health of your dog’s skin largely comes down to feeding them a good quality diet. The best dog food for tear stains, and overall skin health, will have natural ingredients that are less likely to cause irritation and a limited list of ingredients that allow you to easily monitor everything your dog is eating and avoid any known allergens.

Kibble (dry dog food) can be a problem for dogs who suffer from tears stains since it contains a lot of fillers, a long list of ingredients, and often uses artificial flavours and preservatives. The ultra-processed nature of the food makes it less nutritionally viable and more likely to cause irritation too.

Dr Andrew Miller MRCVS recommends that “Pure’s range of recipes are gentle on digestion, whilst containing a minimal number of fresh ingredients least likely to cause a flare-up.”

Our food contains a limited list of wholesome ingredients so you know exactly what your pup is eating, and can be confident their dinner is healthy, easy to digest, and won’t cause any stomach or skin troubles.

Pure has proven to be a awesome dog food for tear stains, and plenty of pups are looking prettier and feeling happier and healthier after eating Pure. Bulldogs like Frank have reduced tear stains and look perfectly handsome, while white pups like Bronte or Charlie have seen their tear and mouth stains much improved after a few weeks.