What Are Tear Stains Under Dog’s Eyes (And How Do You Remove Them)

Written by Sharon Parry
Updated: June 15, 2022
Image Credit GoodFocused/Shutterstock.com
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Dog tear stains are troublesome for pooches, especially those with lighter coats. They can become very unsightly and in some cases indicate that there is an underlying medical condition. If you and your dog are struggling with this issue right now, we have some good news! There are plenty of products that effectively remove them and we’ve done all the research to select the best ones for you. Also, there’s a lot that you can do to prevent them from coming back again and we’ve got the low down on that too!

Tear stains are created when a dog produces excess tears. The porphyrins in the teardrops react with sunlight and reddish-brown chemicals are produced. Bacteria living in the fur near the eyes are thought to make the problem worse. Tear stain removal products work by disrupting the chemical reaction and/or removing bacteria.

What Causes Dog Tear Stains?

Tear stains are caused when tears land on the fur around the eyes. Tears contain a substance called porphyrin. It is also found in saliva and urine and contains iron. When porphyrin reacts with sunlight it undergoes a chemical reaction called oxidation and breaks down into several other substances. Some of these substances are reddish-brown and cause the discoloration that we see around the eyes.

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Not all tear staining is caused by excessive production of tears. Dogs who produce perfectly normal quantities of tears can have tear staining. However, it makes sense that the more tears a dog produces, the worse the staining will be.

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Why Do Only Some Dogs Get Tear Stains?

We know that all dogs have tears, right? They need them to keep their eyes healthy. So, why do some dogs get tear stains and some don’t?

Genetics

Some individual dogs are genetically more prone to tear staining than others. No one is entirely sure why this is. It could be something to do with the composition of their tears or something else entirely.

Coat Color

Dogs with paler color coats are not more likely to get staining as such. It is just that it is more noticeable. It can be very obvious on white and cream coats.

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Water and Allergies

Some experts think that the iron content of the local water supply is a factor. Some types of water, such as well-water, has a higher mineral content. Switching to bottled water may help.

Also, some dogs have allergies that cause their eyes to become red and inflamed. They may also suffer from sneezing. This can be mistaken for tear staining. You could try switching from a plastic water bowl to a ceramic or stainless steel bowl in case that is the cause.

Cigarette Smoke and Dust

Irritants in the air including dust and cigarette smoke can make a dog’s eyes produce more tears. This may not be the cause of the staining but can make it much worse.

Eye Infection

Eye infections can also be mistaken for tear staining. However, dogs that get a lot of tear staining also tend to be prone to eye infections so the two conditions can be linked. It is thought that the damp tears that cause staining can also lead to infections around the eye. Brown staining can be caused by a yeast infection. The area may also have an unusual odor and be itchy and irritated. Eye infections need to be treated by a vet.

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Eye Abnormalities

Tear ducts should drain into the nasal cavity and carry the tears safely away from the eye. However, there can be abnormalities and issues with the tear ducts that stop this from happening and the tears spill out of the eye and onto the fur instead.

Things can also go wrong with eyelashes! They can grow inwards and irritate the eye. There is a condition called entropion where the eyelid folds inwards. This triggers the eye to produce more tears than normal which can make staining worse. Dog eye problems like this must always be treated by a vet.

Life Stage

Puppies often produce more tears when they are teething. This is because of the inflammation around their face caused by the baby teeth falling out and the adult teeth erupting. It should die down once teething is over but the excess tears may cause straining.

Which Dog Breeds Get Tear Stains the Most?

Any dog with a light coat is more likely to get tear stains because they will show up more easily. Here are the other breeds that are most often affected.

Breeds With Flat Faces

Breeds that have flat faces, including the brachycephalic breeds (such as French bulldogs), are more likely to have tear stains. This is because there is a short distance between their eyes and their nose and so their eye sockets have developed into a particular shape.

These breeds often have bulging eyes (the Pug is a typical example) and whilst we may find it super cute, it can cause issues. These dogs cannot close their eyelids properly so their eyes get irritated and produce more tears. Also, because their muzzle is so flat, their tear ducts are often narrow and crooked so the tears cannot drain into the nasal cavity. Instead, they end up on the fur around the eyes.

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Breeds Prone to Congenital Tear Duct Issues

Some breeds such as the Poodles, Cocker Spaniels, Golden Retrievers, and Labrador retrievers are more prone to being born with tear duct abnormalities than other breeds. Of course, if you have a black Poodle, you will not notice so much as if you have a white one – but they could still be there!

One common abnormality is called an imperforate punctum where the tear ducts have not developed properly.

Breeds With Long Hair Around the Eyes

Some breeds including the Schnauzer, Pekingese, and West Highland Terrier have long hair around their eyes. The hair irritates the eyes and makes them more watery which can result in tear staining.

The problem can be even worse in West Highland Terriers because their coat is coarse and can start to grow inwards. This makes eye irritation even worse.

When to See a Vet About Tear Staining

Most of the time, tear staining is a cosmetic issue and is not harmful to your dog. However, it can be a sign that something is wrong with their eyes or face. If your dog suffers from tear staining, it is a good idea to get them checked out by a vet just in case they have an abnormality that is making the issue worse.

If you have a dog that suddenly starts to get tear stains, you should also take them to see your vet. It could be a sign of a condition that has developed.

What You Can Do About Dog Tear Stains

Don’t worry, there is a lot that you can do to prevent, or at least reduce, tear staining.

Change Water and Bowl

Try swapping to bottled water or use purified or distilled water to avoid excess minerals.

Swap your dog’s plastic water bowl for a ceramic or stainless steel bowl. Some dogs fare better with drinking bottles or fountains.

Consider a Change of Diet

Some owners feel that additives in cheaper dog food contribute to the problem. They suggest a grain-free premium dog food that is less likely to trigger allergies.

Other owners have found that pro-biotic supplements are effective.

All dogs are different so this will not work for all dogs. Also, it is wise to talk to your vet before you try to tackle dog allergies.

Eye Hygiene

If you keep the area around the eyes clean and dry, it can help with tear staining. Take your dog to a reputable groomer who can safely snip the hair around the eyes.

You can keep the area dry with paper towels or a dusting of corn starch.

A daily wipe with a clean cloth and water may be all that is needed.

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How to Get Rid of Tear Staining in Dogs

The products that are designed to get rid of tear stains, will often help to prevent them from coming back as well. We have carried out a comprehensive review and come up with our top recommendations.

These products work by stopping the chemical reactions that cause staining, and by cleaning the area, and preventing a build-up of bacteria.

There is a wide range of products to suit all dogs and lifestyles. You may prefer a shampoo, wash, lotion or wipes. There are also complete tear stain removal kits with several products in one pack and chews containing natural ingredients.

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About the Author

Sharon has a Ph.D. in Public Health but has spent the last decade researching and writing about all things connected with animal health and well being. As a life-long animal lover, she now shares her family home with three rabbits, a Syrian hamster, and a very energetic Cocker Spaniel but in the past she has also been a Mom to Guinea Pigs and several cats!She has a passion for researching accurate and credible information about pets and reviewing products that make pet owners' lives a bit easier. When she isn't checking out new pet products she's trekking around the Welsh mountains and beaches with her dog - although she lets her husband and her three grown up daughters tag along sometimes if they are lucky!