Tear stains are exactly what they sound like: stains around the eyes caused by tears.
There are a bunch of reasons why your dog may have tear stains, but I'll get to that in a moment.
On a technical level, tear stains are stains caused by porphyrin, a molecule the body produces when it breaks down iron. It's reddish-brown for the same reason rust is reddish-brown: that's the color of oxidized iron.
All dogs have some amount of porphyrin in their tears, as well as in other sources of excretion, including saliva, which is why some dogs with tear stains also have similar stains in places they commonly lick. It's the same cause – the same molecule – and relates to the same issues.
Tear stains are, in fact, stains, as well. Porphyrin doesn't just rinse off; it causes a chemical reaction with the fur it touches, altering the color.
It takes more than a bath with a little shampoo to get rid of (and you want to keep that shampoo away from your fur baby's eyes in the first place, anyway.)
Many people think the cause of tear stains is due to overproduction of tears, but this is actually not accurate.
“Most dogs with tear staining have normal tear production and do not have an underlying ocular problem. However, many dogs have a normal variation in their eyelid conformation that causes tears to drain onto their face rather than draining down the nasolacrimal puncta and into the nasolacrimal system.” - Vanessa J. Kuonen Cavens, DVM
There are actually three categories of these eyelid variations and medial canthoplasty surgery is an option to correct the problem.
Aside from eyelid formation issues, tear stains can also be due to an overproduction of tears, also known as epiphora.
Rather than a disease, epiphora is a symptom and is associated with a variety of conditions, from health issues to genetic abnormalities to allergic reactions.
“Epiphora is most commonly associated with insufficient drainage of the tear film from the eye. The most common cause of insufficient tear drainage is a blockage of the nasolacrimal ducts or poor eyelid function due to a deformity.” - Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM | VCA Hospitals
If the cause is an irritant or allergen, it's generally a good idea to figure out what is causing it and work to remove that irritant from your household.
For example, it might be a reaction to a particular kind of plastic, which could be in their food and water bowls, or it might be an environmental irritation caused by pollen, dust, or a cleaning product you use. It could also be a mild allergy to something in their food.
Allergens are irritating, and they trigger your fur baby's immune system to work overtime, which can lead to stress on the body, long-term issues, and a constant irritation that can cause other problems as well.
Over-scratching and licking, for example, can be caused by constant low-grade irritation.
Another potential cause is dietary. If your fur baby's diet is high in iron, it can result in tear stains. High iron diets tend to include higher-than-average amounts of foods like liver, egg yolks, sardines, and supplements like ferrous sulfate.
Also, in some cases, city-provided water (which feeds through iron pipes in many cases) can have too much iron in it as well.
Infections, of course, are the worst of the possible causes. Infections are serious health problems and can lead to long-term damage, so if your fur baby developed tear stains suddenly, it might be worth checking for the signs of an infection.
One of the clearest signs of infection-related tear stains is that the stains aren't just visual, you can smell them, and they smell foul. Eye infections, ear infections, mouth infections, and yeast infections can all cause tear stains.
As you can see, it's a pretty broad range of causes. That's part of why they're so common and why they're so difficult to treat.
Tear stains crop up at the drop of a hat, or so it seems sometimes, and even figuring out which of the causes is triggering it can be a hassle.
Are Tear Stains Dangerous?
The stains themselves are not dangerous. They're purely cosmetic. However, they can be a symptom of some more serious issues – like eye and ear infections – so the root cause can be a little more serious.
If your fur baby has tear stains pretty much all the time, chances are there's either a mild allergen that is constantly triggering them, something in their lifestyle isn't balanced properly, or they have a problem like small tear ducts causing it. While some of these causes can be addressed, others can't – at least not easily.
The biggest example here is the deformation of the tear duct. It can be genetic, or it can be caused by something like a tumor pressing on the duct and making it smaller than it should be thus causing blockage.
“There are many problems that can occur along this drainage route. One common problem, especially in poodles, bichon frises, and brachycephalic breeds, is simply that the eye socket is shallow. This means that tears overflow from the corner of the eye because the eyelid space there is not deep enough to contain them… This condition cannot be repaired; it is simply the conformation of the dog’s face.” - Wendy Brooks, DVM, DABVP - VeterinaryPartner.com
A non-invasive procedure known as the Jones test can help your vet determine if there is a problem with drainage. Ask your veterinarian about this.
Unfortunately, there's no easy way to get rid of tear stains. The best you can do is to manage them. Proper and consistent grooming will often be enough to effectively reduce your dog’s tear stains appearance.
The key is in identifying the underlying cause, treating it, and waiting for their fur to cycle out and be replaced by fresh, clean fur.
Step one, then, is to figure out the reason why tear stains are happening. First, look for signs of an infection. If your fur baby has some kind of infection, you'll probably be able to tell by looking at their eyes, nose, ears, and mouth.
Pay attention to the odors, any gross discharge, and even their habits. Many dogs with infections will be lethargic, maybe averse to touch or affection, and might not have much of an appetite.
You might also want to look for signs of injury. A corneal abrasion – a scratch on the surface of the eye – can lead to excess tear production as a means to lubricate and help it heal.
These are usually too small to see, but your fur baby will have an irritated eye, and they'll probably blink a lot. An ingrown eyelash can also cause the issue, which you should be able to notice because it will be a small, swollen spot on their eye.
While much less likely, you can check for signs of a tumor swelling up around their eyes or tear ducts, which could be putting pressure on and shrinking the tear ducts and leading to excess tear production.
This is something you'll need to consult your vet for if you notice it to diagnose the problem.
If tear stains haven't suddenly appeared (for example, maybe you didn't realize they were stains rather than just markings in the fur, they've been around so long), you can look for other potential causes.
Ask your vet to check for physical abnormalities. Eyelid variations and small tear ducts are a solvable problem if they cause issues, even though they're mostly a genetic issue, for example. Inverted eyelids – where the eyelid turns inward, and the eyelashes scrape against the eye – can also be a cause. Called Entropion, this also has surgical means to correct it and is more important because it can damage vision over time.
Check their food. Does the food list a high level of iron in its ingredients or other iron-derived chemicals like ferrous sulfate? Some of these are included to make a diet more robust and comprehensive, sort of like a multivitamin, but that can result in overdoses of some nutrients like iron. Remember, some amount of iron is necessary to thrive, but too much can be detrimental. You can use nutraceuticals to help your dog eliminate excess iron in their diet.
“A clean diet with the possible introduction of probiotics, botanicals (milk thistle or dandelion) and coconut oil all might encourage your pup’s body to eliminate excess iron in bowel movements, rather than in tears.” - Pet Health Hospital
Check for sources of environmental irritation. If tear stains are seasonal, it might be an allergy to pollen. If there's a smoker in your household, second-hand smoke can cause the problem. It can also be an allergy to a plastic or polymer in the environment, which might mean you need to swap out a toy or a food/water bowl set, change a cleaning product or detergent you use, or even change the shampoo you use on them. Switching to glass or aluminum food and water bowls can also help.
Consider testing your tap water. You can buy a home water test kit to check the iron levels in your tap water. If it’s high, you might want to filter the water and you should probably call your water company to ask about it.
Your goal with all of this is to try to figure out what's causing the excess tears (or excess iron in the tears) and address that underlying cause.
Whether it means dietary changes, lifestyle changes, surgical correction, or a course of antibiotics, solving the problem will get rid of tear stains.
While you're doing all of this, you can also be proactive at getting rid of tear stains.
Since tear stains are a chemical reaction that happens slowly, you can help prevent them by using gentle wipes to remove moisture from around your fur baby's eyes and wherever else tear stains show up.
Just gently wipe those affected areas with a damp washcloth a few times each day. It won't get rid of existing tear stains, but it can help prevent new ones from forming, and when their fur cycles out, it will be bright and clean again.
Beware of Certain Products
Up until a few years ago, there were a handful of products on the market advertised to treat tear stains.
These products included a chemical called Tylosin Tartrate, which is a mild antibiotic. This would kill off many of the bacteria that produce porphyrins, reducing the amount of the chemical in your dog's tears and thus reducing the rate of tear stains.
“Variable success has been reported (with Tylosin) but the problem is that using antibiotics in this way constitutes less than responsible use of antibiotics, and resistant bacterial strains may result from this practice. It is generally frowned upon by pharmacologists." - Veterinary Partner.com
Of course, this had a bunch of other effects. It kills off good bacteria too, and never lets them grow back because if you keep administering the product, they keep getting antibiotics.
It also contributes to the development of antibiotic-resistant strains, which are vastly more dangerous and harder to handle than normal bacteria and are increasingly a threat to modern medical care. And, of course, there are a bunch of different reasons why a constant diet including antibiotics was a bad thing.
Luckily, the FDA prohibited the use of this ingredient in pet products like tear stain treatments back in 2014. You might still encounter it if you buy products from foreign markets, but you shouldn't see it in domestic products.
Still, keep an eye out and avoid it if you see it.
This is not to say you can't use tear stain products. There are a ton of products out there that can be useful, either directly or indirectly!
Various wipes can remove tears before they can stain, and balms can help keep the skin beneath healthy. Anything that helps clear up and dry out tears before they can stain may show improvement over time.
As with any grooming related to your dog’s eyes, it is important to be extremely careful when cleaning your dog’s face to avoid getting anything into their eyes. The last thing you want is to make things worse.
Also, make sure to do your due diligence for any product before you apply it to your dog. As you may know the market is infested with unscrupulous sellers that manage to get their unsafe products on the shelves of the largest pet stores in America.
A trusting pet parent will tend to think, well if it’s sold at Petco, Petsmart, or another big box retailer, then it must be safe. Right?
Well, as it turns out, the short answer is, not necessarily.
Further, you may even run into many of these harmful products disguised with very appealing labels such as “best choice” or “best seller,” or even worse and more despicable “veterinary recommended” in the catalogs of the largest and “most reputable” ecommerce sites.
Never, ever, take these hard-sell tactic labels as a proxy for safety or harmlessness for your fur baby.
“There are many remedies that have been recommended for removing or eliminating the facial staining associated with excess tears (in dogs). None of these has proven to be 100% effective. Some over-the-counter treatments may be harmful or injurious to the eyes.” - Ryan Llera, BSc, DVM; Ernest Ward, DVM - VCA Animal Hospitals
I’ve written extensively about what I like to call the art of deception and how unscrupulous sellers manage to get their harmful and toxic products on the largest retailers’ shelves and online platforms and from there to your fur babies’ blood stream and vital organs.
Our recommendation is to always consult with your veterinarian. They will point you in the right direction.
Keep in mind tough, that No matter how many wipes, creams, balms, and other safe products you use, you'll never actually solve the problem until, and as mentioned above, you identify what's causing it and address that issue directly.
Luckily, out of all of the possible issues you might have with your fur baby, tear stains are usually benign.
While there are a few more detrimental issues that can cause them (infections, tumors, injuries), most of the causes are more along the lines of irritation and allergies, which are a lot easier to address and not all that dangerous.
So, once you figure out the root cause and address it, you can say goodbye to tear stains!
Do you have any comments, questions, concerns, etc., about tear stains or how you can get rid of them? If so, please feel free to leave me a comment down below, and I'd be more than happy to help you out however I can!
K Marie Alto
K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer (https://www.amazon.com/author/kmariealto), and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 45K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).