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Dog tear stains: causes and how to get rid of them

Tear stains are totally normal for dogs, but you should contact your vet to make sure there aren’t any underlying causes.

You may notice discoloration, or tear stains, in the corners or underneath your pup’s eyes, especially if your dog has lighter hair or fur. Despite the name, these red or brownish spots don’t actually mean that your pup is sad. So what really are tear stains and what causes them? 

Tear staining on dogs

Tear stains are easy to spot. They’re that brownish-red line of stained fur that trails from the inner corner of a pup’s eyes — it’s most noticeable on white dogs because of the contrast between the natural fur color and the stained fur.

Any dog can have tear stains, but it’s more common in short-nosed dogs, who tend to be small breeds, and more noticeable on lighter-furred pets. 

“Small dogs are more prone to having eyelash abnormalities, such as eyelashes that roll inward and irritate the eye,” Dr. Kelly Diehl, DVM, MS, Dipl. ACVIM (SAIM), a former vet and the senior scientific programs and communications adviser at Morris Animal Foundation, says. “Some dog breeds with flatter, snub-nosed faces have shallow eye sockets and their tear duct openings don’t work quite as well, leading to tear staining.”

Dogs that may be prone to tear stains include brachycephalic breeds, like Bulldogs, pugs, Shih Tzus and Pekingese, which all have shallow eye sockets. Tear staining results when tears spill out of the eye, but not because your pup is sad. This typically occurs because of an excess production of tears (the medical term is epiphora) and/or decreased drainage of tears.

What causes tear stains in dogs

“There are many reasons for excess tears, some more serious than others,” Dr. Diehl says. “Sometimes it’s due to environmental conditions, like allergies. We can also see excess tear production when dogs are exposed to smoke from a fire or on high-pollution days. And sometimes the tear ducts get blocked, so tears can’t drain into the nose and spill out.”

When an eye is irritated, the body’s natural response is to increase tear production to try to flush the irritation out. Some little dogs are prone to eye conditions specific to their breed that result in constant eye irritation. Distichia (abnormal eyelashes) and entropion (eyelids that are rolled inward) are common in some small pups — long fur around the eyes can be a source of irritation, too.

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So, why are tear stains brown?

Dogs’ saliva and tears contain porphyrins, which are products of the breakdown of red blood cells. Because of the iron content of porphyrins, tears and saliva can turn fur brown. 

How to get rid of tear stains on dogs

Before you think of cleaning your pup’s tear stains, you’ll want to contact your vet to address any medical abnormalities that may be causing excess tear production — especially if the tear stains appeared suddenly.

“Your veterinarian should take a good look at your dog to make sure there isn’t an underlying reason for your dog’s condition that requires treatment,” Dr. Diehl says. “Although the vast majority of these cases aren’t caused by a serious underlying problem, it’s important to remember that sometimes diseases in the nasal cavity, such as tumors or infection, can block the tear duct and cause increased tear production.”

If your vet says the tear stains are normal, then you’ll want to focus on keeping your dog’s eyes and face clean to minimize more staining. Make sure the fur around your pup’s eyes is clipped short, and invest in some vet-approved antibacterial wipes for the face.

In some cases, giving your dog only filtered or bottled water can cut down on tear staining, so this may be worth a try, too. The good news is that in most cases, tear staining is only cosmetic, so you don’t have to do anything about it as long as your pup is healthy.

The Dig, Fetch's expert-backed editorial, answers all of the questions you forget to ask your vet or are too embarrassed to ask at the dog park. We help make sure you and your best friend have more good days, but we’re there on bad days, too.

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