If you’re a “dog person,” you probably also lean in the direction of being a “big dog person” or a “little dog person.” I, myself, identify more as a “big dog person.” But there are a lot of great things to be said for little dogs.

First of all, they’re so cute. They don’t take up much space on the bed. And they tend to live longer than their larger brothers and sisters. But they do have some particularities we don’t see in big dogs, and we’re going to talk about a very visible issue of some small dogs—tear stains.

What are tear stains?

Tear stains are easy to spot. They’re that brownish red line of stained fur that trails from the inner corner of the eye, and it’s most noticeable on white dogs because of the contrast between the natural fur color and the stained fur.

Any dog can have tear stains, but it’s more common in short-nosed dogs (who tend to be small breeds), and more noticeable on lighter furred pets. It’s worth noting that short-nosed cats are also prone to tear stains.

So what are tear stains, and what can be done about it? Tear staining results when tears spill out of the eye. This typically occurs for one of two reasons (or possibly both if you’re really unlucky!):

  • an excess production of tears (the medical term is epiphora), or
  • decreased drainage of tears

When there’s an irritation to the eye, the body’s natural response is to increase tear production to try to flush the irritation out. That makes sense, right? Well, some little dogs are prone to eye conditions specific to their breed conformation that result in constant eye irritation. Distichia (abnormal eyelashes) and entropion (eyelids that are rolled inward) are common in some little dogs, and long fur around the eyes can be a source of irritation.

Furthermore, snub-nosed brachycephalic breeds, like Pugs, Shih Tzus and Pekingese, have shallow eye sockets. In these breeds, the puncta in the eyelids, which are the holes responsible for tear drainage, can’t work properly, so tears spill out of the eye instead of draining down the back of the throat. In other dogs, drainage pathways may be blocked.

white dog with brown tear stains

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So, why are they brown?

If it’s just tears, what’s with the brown staining? In cats and dogs (and other pets, too), saliva and tears contain porphyrins, which are products of the breakdown of red blood cells. Because of the iron content of porphyrins, tears and saliva can turn the fur brown. This is what makes allergic dogs who chew their feet noticeable immediately—salivary staining on their foot fur!

So what can be done about it? First off, you’ll want to address any medical abnormalities that may be causing excess tear production. Distichia and entropion can be surgically repaired, so check with your vet to see if that’s the underlying problem.

If the conformation is normal (or as normal as it can get for a brachycephalic breed), then you’ll want to focus on keeping the eyes and face clean. Make sure the fur around the eyes is clipped short, and invest in some good antibacterial wipes for the face.

Several years ago, it was no big thing to get an over-the-counter product called Angel Eyes, specifically made for this problem, and it worked really, really well! But there was a downside—this product contained antibiotics. Although the dose was low, over time pets had the potential to develop antibiotic resistance. And don’t get me started on why an oral product with antibiotics was available over the counter! The FDA had a problem with it, too, and that’s why they shut it down. You can still find Angel Eyes over the counter, but it no longer contains antibiotics, and therefore it no longer works.

Some people have found that giving their pets only filtered bottled water cuts down on tear staining, so this may be worth a try if it really bothers you. The good news is that in most cases, tear staining is only a cosmetic issue, so you don’t really have to do anything about it. If it doesn’t bother your pet, it shouldn’t bother you!

Jun 14, 2016

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