Tear Stains and Your Pet - not just a cosmetic issue

We recently asked our readers what pet health and behavior problems they were most interested in learning more about, and “What causes tear stains in dogs and cats?” and “What’s the best way to remove tear stains?” were among the top questions we received. In my research for this article, I’ve discovered that tear staining is a more complicated issue than I had previously assumed. Here’s why:

There are several possible contributing factors and underlying causes when it comes to tear stains in pets, each requiring a different treatment, and often several of these different factors are present in a single animal.  In the following paragraphs we will describe these, and suggest some tips for dealing with tear stains, but it is important to consult with your veterinarian, because tear stains can often be an indicator of potentially serious health conditions, especially if they have made a sudden or recent appearance in a pet which has not previously exhibited staining.

If you are unsure as to what tear stains look like, they often show up as red or brown stains coming from the corner of the eye.
dog rescued
Even happy rescues like Dumpling may have tear stains!

Let’s start with the stuff causing the staining. Most often, it is a naturally occurring substance known as porphyrin, which is produced when the body breaks down red blood cells. Porphyrins contain iron, which imparts a reddish color to the tears. Sunlight causes porphyrin to further darken in color. Some pets, for reasons which are not currently understood, simply produce more porphyrins than others, and this is not necessarily cause for concern in itself.

However – and this is important – tear staining can also be caused by a red yeast infection, most commonly in the ears. Despite the name, red yeast causes a brownish discharge. See, it’s already getting a bit complicated! We want you to be an informed caregiver, but only a professional veterinarian should be making diagnoses and suggesting the proper course of treatment.  If the staining has a yeasty, malodorous smell, characteristic of a yeast infection, we suggest you consult your vet as soon as possible.

Another source of confusion involves terminology. The scientific term for red yeast is pityrosporum, the culprit behind certain fungal infections. Somewhere along the line, pityrosporum was misspelled or otherwise wrongly called 'ptyrosporin'. This incorrect term is still associated with tear staining, despite the fact that ‘ptyrosporin’ is not a separate strain of pityrosporum. In fact, there is no such thing as ‘ptyrosporin’!

Of course, there would not be tear stains if there were not tears, so what is the source of the weeping? Broadly speaking, there are two possible reasons, and it is possible that your pet is experiencing both. Either something is causing excessive tear production, a condition known as epiphora, and/or the tears produced are not draining properly. There are genetic predispositions in certain breeds and individuals which may cause either or both of these conditions, and there are also several other factors which could be causing either or both conditions as well.

In cases of Genetic Predisposition, tear staining is occurring because of the physical traits of the pet. Measures can be taken to address the causes of staining, but staining will continue to occur, and eliminating it entirely is likely not an option. ‘Short-faced’ (brachycephalic) breeds, like pugs and shih tzu, or Maltese and Persian, often exhibit these traits, but any individual  could present any or all of these factors:
      Shallow eye sockets (protruding eyes)
      Malformed or blocked tear ducts
      Abnormally shaped eyes or eyelids
      Excessive hair around the eyes
Treating tear staining in these cases may be lessened through some of the suggestions we’ll share below, and in some cases your veterinarian may suggest corrective surgery. For most of these cases, tear staining to some degree is simply a fact of life.

Note: It is normal for teething puppies to tear excessively, which may be accompanied by staining. This should only be a temporary condition.

There are also several Other Contributing Factors causing tear staining, and pets without any of the predispositions above may exhibit staining. These factors may be the primary cause of staining in some pets, or they may be causing an existing condition to worsen:

Mineral content in drinking water may cause excessive porphyrin staining, if it is abnormally high.

Irritations include airborne particles, present in smoke or dust, foreign matter in the eyes, ingrown eyelashes, and conditions resulting from injury to the eye area, such as scratched or ulcerated cornea.

Allergies may also contribute to excessive tearing and the accompanying stains, and could be triggered by a number of potential sources, including (but not limited to) pollen and other seasonal sources, eating certain foods (or non-foods!), and exposure to various substances and chemicals.

Infections may also be the cause of tear staining. This might be a bacterial infection, or it could be a fungal infection (like red yeast). Treatment with antibiotics will effectively combat a bacterial infection, but antibiotics are not effective against fungal/yeast infections, and anti-fungal medications will help clear yeast infections, but won’t help against bacteria. A further complication is that bacterial and fungal infections are often both present, and they appear to interact in a way which is not fully understood.

OK, now that we have some information on the various causes of tear staining, how can we control, lessen, or eliminate the stains? First, some Preventative Measures for all pets, regardless of predisposition or current condition:

Frequent grooming of the eye area will help keep it drier, lessening the chance of staining.  Perhaps a professional trim of excess hair around the eyes may be recommended – we do not suggest that you attempt this at home!

Feeding dishes and drinking bowls should be made of steel or glass, rather than plastic or porcelain. Both plastic and porcelain will develop cracks and surface wear which provide places for infectious organisms, even when these cracks are too small to see. Keeping your pet’s dishes cleaned is very important - they should be cleaned at least once a day.

Maintain a healthy immune system to lessen the chances of infection. A high-quality diet is essential, and you can further boost your pet’s immune system with our Immune Support formula.

Distilled or bottled water is an alternative for those whose drinking water is particularly high in minerals.

Remove irritants such as smoke and dust from your pet’s environment.

Clean your pet’s ears on a regular schedule.  This will reduce the chance of ear infections, and also lessens the chance of related tear staining. We recommend our own herbal Ear Wash formula.

There are several options for treating existing stains. Once your vet has diagnosed the source of the problem, you’ll know how to effectively address the cause, and be given advice for dealing with the resulting stains. There are commercial products available, but as with any health care product, be sure to educate yourself. The FDA recently issued a warning to several manufacturers of these products, because they “have not been reviewed by FDA for safety and effectiveness,” and also because several contain tylosin tartrate, an antibiotic “which is not approved for use in dogs or cats, nor for the treatment of conditions associated with tear stains.” Do not use antibiotics - of any kind - unless they are prescribed by your veterinarian, as this could worsen a condition, or simply be completely ineffective.

The internet is also filled with a number of ‘home remedies’ for dealing with tear stains, but none of the many I have seen are backed by any type of clinical, scientific support. There are claims for using household products to clean the eye area, such as hydrogen peroxide or milk of magnesia, food items like lemons, vinegar, and yogurt, even concoctions containing “just a drop or two of bleach”! There are also ‘home remedies’ for creating ‘doggie makeup’ from corn starch, or from beauty products intended for humans… Many of these products are labeled with an avoid contact with eyes warning! Please, don’t put any of this stuff on or near your pet’s eyes! (How ridiculous would a dog or cat look with ‘makeup’ under its eyes? Unbelievable!)

For most chronic cases of tear staining (provided that there is not an underlying health issue), simply wipe the area a few times per day, with a damp cloth. This will help lessen the staining, but it will not eliminate it from recurring.  For particularly stubborn stains, some veterinarians recommend using a contact lens cleaner, containing a mild solution of boric acid. These products are made to be safe for human eyes, and should not irritate the skin or eyes of a healthy pet, and may have an oxidizing effect on porphyrins, making them appear less noticeable.

1. Talk to your veterinarian! Make sure that your pet’s tear stains are not the result of an allergy, infection, trauma, etc., which requires medical treatment, especially if the stains have made a sudden appearance.
2. Once you have a professional diagnosis, you can address the issues specific to your pet. You may be able to eliminate tear staining entirely, but you should also be prepared to accept that some degree of staining may be unavoidable in your particular case.
3. If the tear staining in your particular pet does prove to be more of a cosmetic issue, rather than a health concern, do your best to keep the eye area clean, but don't stress over it.  Look at it this way: we all have a few 'flaws'!  Your pet isn’t concerned about your appearance, as much as he is concerned with your health and happiness. Return the compliment!

The author would like to thank the following for providing information valuable to this article:
A Veterinary Guide to Tear Stains Dr Greg Magnussen, DVM
Watery Eyes in Dogs Dr Ruth MacPete, DVM
The Hidden Message Behind Your Pet's Tear Stains Dr Karen Becker, DVM
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