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By: Paula Fitzsimmons

Weep no more over doggy tear stains! You know, those reddish-brown pools of color that form around a pooch’s eyes?

Tear stains on dogs are most noticeable on white pups, but all breeds can get them. And while they can be a sign of a serious medical condition, the good news is most of the time they’re harmless and totally natural.

If you’re determined to rid your best pal of that reddish-brown gunk (and your veterinarian has ruled out any medical issues), there are over-the-counter products that can help. We asked veterinarians and a pet groomer for their thoughts on how to clean dog tear stains and prevent them from returning, safely and effectively.

What Causes Tear Stains on Dogs?
Tear stains on dogs are often caused by porphyrins, which are iron-carrying molecules that are the by-product of red blood cells being broken down. Porphyrins are carried in a dog’s tears, urine and saliva, and when they come into contact with the pet’s fur, stains are produced. “The chemical reaction between porphyrins and fur is what causes the change in color,” says Dr. Zay Satchu, chief veterinary officer and co-founder of BondVet, based in New York City.

In this case, the extent of a dog’s tear stains is determined by the quantity of porphyrins and tears produced by the individual pet, says Rachel Ann Stalcoskie, head stylist and co-owner of Rachel Ann’s Country Clips Pet Grooming in Pocono Summit, Pennsylvania. Tear stains on white dogs are typically more obvious but only because of their light fur.

While tear stains on dogs are harmless, they may be indicative of an underlying medical issue. So, “If tear stains are a new development, it is a good idea to have a physical exam performed by a veterinarian to ensure there is no medical reason causing increased tear production that is leading to the staining,” recommends Dr. Satchu.

Tear stains on dogs are sometimes due to either eye irritation or a tear duct system that doesn’t drain tears correctly. Normally, tears drain from the eyes to the nose—but a wonky tear duct system causes tears to flow over the eyelid and onto the face.

What are some of the other things that may cause tear stains that your vet might want to rule out?

Entropion. This is where the eyelids are positioned towards the eye instead of away. Some breeds, including English Bulldogs, Great Danes and Miniature Poodles are more susceptible.
A yeast or fungal infection.
Abnormal eyelashes. Ectopic cilia, for example, occurs when one or more hairs grow abnormally. The hair then makes contact with the cornea and causes irritation and ulcers.
Damage to the corneas (surface of the eye). This is oftentimes caused by an infection or the result of an injury to the eye.
Glaucoma. When fluid builds up, it increases pressure on the eye.

How to Get Rid of Tear Stains on Dogs
Once your vet has ruled out any serious issues, you can start treating the tear stains at home. One key thing to keep in mind is that there isn’t really one specific product that will work the same way on every dog.

“Over the years I have seen a hundred things work and a hundred things not work to get rid of the stains. It all depends on the individual pet and the severity of the staining,” Stalcoskie says. When it comes to cleaning tear stains on dogs, it’s mostly a case of trial and error.

Some of the things Stalcoskie has seen work on different dogs over the years include the following:

Treating the underlying medical condition, like entropion or allergies
Changing the dog’s drinking water from tap water to filtered bottle water
Adding a supplement to the dog’s diet or changing the dog’s diet
Keeping the dog’s face well maintained: “Keeping hair short around eyes, cleaning the face multiple times a day and keeping the face as dry as possible.”
An array of OTC products (like dog tear stain removers)

Tear Stain Removers for Dogs
“The best advice I can give on OTC products is to research the product thoroughly and try different things out to see what works for the individual pet,” Stalcoskie says.

One dog tear stain remover that seems to do a good job is Angel Eyes, says Dr. Satchu.

“They make wipes for existing stains, but also supplements that help to prevent future stains from developing.” These pre-moistened, no-rinse wipes contain a mild detergent derived from coconut oil and other natural ingredients like juniper berry oil and aloe leaf extract.

Another brand veterinarians recommend is the Optixcare line of cleaners and wipes.

A word of caution: Keep in mind during application that these (or any) OTC products should only be used around the eyes, never ever in the eyes. Always check with your vet before using a new product on your dog, and avoid using home remedies for dog tear stain removers as they may be potentially harmful to your dog.

Dog Tear Stain Supplements
There’s currently not a whole lot of evidence showing that oral supplements can decrease tear stains on dogs, says Dr. Clara Williams, DVM, DACVO, a board-certified veterinary ophthalmologist at BluePearl Specialty and Emergency Pet Hospital in Waltham, Massachusetts. However, “Some oral antioxidants may improve the tear film quality.” The tear film is the liquid mixture on the surface of the eye that does things like maintain lubrication between the eyelids and eye surface and provide nutrients to the cornea.

Even then, results can vary. “I have seen the same supplement (being the only change) cause tear staining on one dog and stop tear staining on another dog,” Stalcoskie says.

Avoid products containing antibiotics, veterinarians recommend. “The oral administration of antibiotics such as tylosin must be discouraged. Personally, I would not give my dog a strong long-term antibiotic to make him or her look better,” Dr. Williams says. (Long-term use of any antibiotic can lead to future antibacterial resistance.)

How to Prevent Tear Stains on Dogs
It’s not always possible to completely prevent tear stains on dogs, but you can work to minimize their appearance and occurrence. Good hygiene practices are paramount, experts say.

“Keeping the hair around the eyes super short all of the time is very important. Going to your groomer one to two times for face trims in between your pet’s full grooming appointment is a great idea. Keeping the pet’s face as dry as possible and cleaning the pet’s face twice a day will help dramatically,” recommends Stalcoskie.

Sometimes simple changes, like exchanging tap water for filtered bottled water, can help, she adds. Filtered water is especially helpful if your water has a high iron count.

After your vet has ruled out any medical issues, you find the right products for your dog and get your vet’s stamp of approval, you can finally say goodbye to your dog’s pesky tear stains—for good.