Tear staining is a common problem for dogs. The pesky brown streaks creeping down from their dog’s inner eye corners drive pet owners everywhere crazy – but what are they? This is one of the most common questions I answer from pet parents as a veterinarian. Below is information on what is tear staining as well as how to treat it in dogs.
What is Tear Staining and Why Does it Occur in Dogs?
Tear staining refers to the browning of hairs near the inner corner of the eye. We see tear staining most often in white and light-colored dogs. Most of the time tear staining is normal and not of concern (other than perhaps making the dog appear “less cute” to his owner).
Tear staining occurs when a chemical called porphyrin, a breakdown product of blood in the tears, interacts with the light and is oxidized. This causes a brownish stain of the hair at the inner aspect of the eye.
What is the Significance of Tear Staining in Dogs?
Most often this is nothing more than a cosmetic problem. When there is a real medical problem involved, it often leads to excess tears and excessive tear staining.
Medical problems that would cause excessive tearing (epiphora) include: having a foreign object in the eye, having a scratch or lesion on the eyeball itself (corneal ulceration), or having a hair growing inward towards the eye and irritating it. If you are unsure if there is an underlying medial problem with your dog – please see your veterinarian.
So, is there cause for treatment if there is no medical problem? No.
Treatment Options for Excessive Tearing in Dogs
You may have heard of these products or even purchased them: Angel Eyes, Tear Stain Away, Pet Spark, etc. Over-the-counter medications aimed at treating tear staining are a dime a dozen. These products contain the antibiotic tylosin. The problem with this is two-fold.
The Danger of Tear Staining Products in Dogs
The first issue is that the exact amount of antibiotic in the product is not specified on the label, which means your dog is ingesting an unknown amount of the drug every day. Obviously, if you’re going to use a drug, you should at the very least know how much is being used. An alternative to these is an accurately dosed capsule, which can be fulfilled by a compounding pharmacy with a prescription from your veterinarian – if it is medically warranted.
The second problem with these OTC tear-staining medications is the central issue itself: is it even appropriate to use an antibiotic daily for a cosmetic problem? Overuse of antibiotics is responsible for antibiotic resistance of bacteria in the environment and, in general, bacteria that becomes resistant to tylosin also becomes resistant to other bigger antibiotics.
With the overwhelming majority of tear-staining cases being simply a cosmetic issue, perhaps non-antibiotic treatment could be used instead, though it is admittedly less effective. The simplest treatment: gentle daily washing of this area of your pet’s fur. All you need is warm water and a paper towel, cotton ball, or washcloth.
All in all, the overuse of unnecessary medications is bad for everyone even if it doesn’t immediately impact your pet. If your dog seems to have excessive tear staining, talk to a vet to ensure there is no medical cause.
Important Signs of Eye Problems in Dogs
While tear staining is typically a non-medical issue, other eye problems can have very serious causes and consequences.
Here are some signs that you should keep an eye out for:
- Closed eyes
- Squinting or sensitivity to light
- Rubbing or scratching at your dog's eyes (this can cause damage! – call your vet immediately)
- Discharge and crust collecting at the eyes (a little normal daily accumulation is normal, but a change in the amount is a sign that something abnormal may be brewing)
- Lack of or excessive tearing
- Red or white eyelid linings (they should be pink)
- Cloudiness or change in eye color
- Change in color to the whites of the eye
- Unequal pupil sizes
- A visible third eyelid popping out towards the bottom of the eye (called a “cherry eye”)
- Bulging of the eye