How to Clean and Remove Dog Tear Stains

White dog with sweater looking at camera

Tearstaining is usually caused by excessive tear production, technically known as epiphora. Normally tears drain through small holes (puncta) in the eyelid into the lacrimal sac, which drains into the nasolacrimal duct, which in turn empties into the nose. However, if the nasolacrimal duct is blocked for any reason, the tears get backed up and flow from the eye instead. In addition, in some breeds, the nasolacrimal duct does not develop properly, resulting in chronic overproduction of tears. 

Dog Breeds Prone to Tear Stains

While tear stains are most visible on white-coated dogs, they can be present on any dog. The problem is most common in small breeds with long hairs on the face, like Toy Poodles, Maltese, West Highland White Terriers, Shih Tzu, Lhasa Apsos, and Bichons Frises. Members of these breeds often have tiny hairs in the inner aspect of the lid margin that act like wicks for eye moisture and tears. Mixed breeds with any of these breeds in their ancestry are also prone to tearstains. 

Causes of Tear Stains

Although tear stains in themselves are not harmful to dogs, in some cases they are indicative of other problems, such as ingrown eyelashes, teething problems in puppies, corneal ulcerations, ear infections, a pH imbalance, certain medications, poor diet, unusually large tear glands or unusually small tear gland openings, stress, or even the use of plastic food or water bowls, which encourage bacteria growth. 
The rusty color is often due to porphyrin, a waste by-product resulting from the breakdown of red blood cells; the stains darken when exposed to sunlight. (No, you’re not imagining things when you think the stains look worse outdoors.) However, stains that are more brownish than red—and that smell bad—could indicate a yeast infection. The biggest culprit here is the strong-smelling “red yeast,” which can infect tear ducts and cause staining. It’s a good idea to talk with your vet about possible causes of tearstaining in your pet.

Tips for Tear Stain Prevention and Removal

Replace any plastic dog bowls with stainless steel ones, and add a teaspoon of white or apple cider vinegar to your dog’s drinking water. These simple steps will acidify the water and thus may help remove yeast from your dog’s system. In addition, using filtered water rather than water straight out of the tap will reduce the high mineral content often present in tap water, which will help reduce staining.

It’s also important to keep the hairs around the eyes trimmed, as well as keep the corners of the eyes clean with warm water.

Tear stains can be safely treated with a variety of safe products. You can also try Healthy Promise™ Pet Eye Cleaning Wipes to safely remove tear stains with a single wipe. However, before using any commercial product, discuss the problem with your veterinarian to check for an underlying, treatable cause like an infection or blockage. This is especially important if the tearing appears suddenly on a breed not prone to the condition.
In some cases, oral medication can be used to make tear stains less visible, but this is generally not necessary.
Pets 101 - Health & Wellness | Four Paws

Sign up for our newsletter

Join the Four Paws Pack to enjoy first dibs on new arrivals, exclusive content, and more!