tear stains

Clean up those ugly brown tear stains under your dog’s eyes with a healthy diet and some extra attention to his facial hygiene.

Thanks to unsightly brown tear stains, many dogs with light-colored hair on their faces can look a little sad, even on good days. But it doesn’t mean they’re depressed. The problem is caused by excessive tearing, technically called “epiphoria”.

You may have a similar condition yourself, especially if you wear contacts or have sensitive eyes. Allergies can also be a culprit, in both dogs and people. If the dog has long hair around his eyes, tearing could be caused by the hair getting into the eyes and irritating them. And just as our own eyes may water on a windy day, or when we sneeze, so too can a dog’s. It’s just that it’s more noticeable on the dog if those tears happen to discolor the hair below his eyes.

Dr. Jessica Meekins, Kansas State University ophthalmologist at the Veterinary Health Center, adds that some dogs’ tear ducts are pinched or blocked. That makes tears spill over and out of the eye, instead of draining away. This usually isn’t a problem, although you can talk with your veterinarian to see if a serious blockage can be corrected.

The longer you let tear stains sit, the harder they are to get rid of. If the discoloration is severe and the cleaning tips in this article aren’t working, you may have to wait for the hair to grow out and then trim it.

What causes the color?

According to veterinarian Dr. Karen Becker, animal tears are unlike human ones because they aren’t clear. “Tear stains are typically the result of porphyrins,” she says. “Porphyrins are naturally-occurring molecules containing iron – waste products from the breakdown of red blood cells — and are mostly removed from the body in the usual way…that is, poop. In dogs, however, porphyrin can also be excreted through tears, saliva and urine.” Think of rust, with its reddish brown color — that’s the iron you’re seeing in tear stains.

If the dog has long hair around his eyes, tearing could be caused by the hair getting into the eyes and irritating them.

Steps to a cleaner face

  • Take a look at what your dog is eating. A poor quality and/or imbalanced diet can contribute to unsightly tear stains, among other health issues. Feed your dog a premium whole meat-based food free of by-products, synthetic colors, flavors and preservatives.
  • Avoid commercial products that claim to get rid of tear stains. Any area of your dog that contains mucus membranes — those soft tissues around openings, including the eyes — is particularly vulnerable. Commercial products containing harsh chemicals or antibiotics can do more harm than good. See the sidebar for a selection of more natural products to try.
  • Daily hygiene needs to take a priority. A few minutes of face grooming each evening will go a long way to minimizing any discoloration before it gets a chance to stain or build up. The American Kennel Club suggests the following steps:
    • Flush eyes with a gentle saline solution.
    • Moisten a cotton ball with the same solution, and carefully rub underneath and around the eye area.
    • Wash the muzzle hair with dry or waterless shampoo [choose a gentle, natural product] and a wet washcloth. Comb and dry afterwards.
    • Keep the hair around the eyes trimmed to prevent it from irritating the eyes and causing tearing.

Tear stains on their own are generally not a sign of illness. They are often simply part of the package when you love a dog with light-colored hair. If your canine’s eyes and tears start behaving differently, with more or less moisture, talk with your veterinarian to rule out any problems. Otherwise, a healthy diet and some extra attention to his facial hygiene should help do away with those brown stains.