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Vet Corner: Combating Excessive Tear Staining in Dogs

A Veterinary Ophthalmologist’s Perspective on Tear Staining

My clients often seek advice on how to treat the messy, frustrating problem of tear staining. If you research tear staining, you will find numerous different products, ideas, and suggestions that claim to fix or prevent the staining. The fact that there are so many products available means that there is not ONE magic treatment or approach that will work for every dog.

The red/brown discoloration in tears comes from porphyrin. Porphyrins are iron-containing molecules produced when the body breaks down iron. They are excreted through the gastrointestinal tract, urine, saliva, and TEARS! All dogs have some porphyrin in their tears, but some dogs have more porphyrin and the staining is always more noticeable in white or light colored dogs.

Tear staining in a middle aged dog.

Common Causes of Tear Staining

A common misconception about tear staining is that it is due to excessive tear production. Most dogs with tear staining have normal tear production and do not have an underlying ocular problem. However, many dogs with tear staining have a normal variation in their eyelid conformation that causes tears to drain onto their face rather than draining down the nasolacrimal puncta and into the nasolacrimal system. The nasolacrimal system normally drains tears from the orbit into the mouth and nose.

Medial canthal trouging (black arrows) and haired caruncle (blue star).

There are three common variations in eyelid conformation that cause tears to spill onto the face rather than drain through the nasolacrimal system.

  1. Tight medial canthal ligament: The medial canthal (palpebral) ligament is tighter in some dogs which causes the medial portion of the eyelids to roll slightly inward. This creates a partial, functionally, obstructed nasolacrimal puncta which then causes tears to spill over onto the face.
  2. Haired lacrimal caruncle: The lacrimal caruncle is a triangular prominence in the medial canthus which normally has fine hair and a few sebaceous glands. Some dogs have longer hair. This hair then wicks tears onto the face bypassing the nasolacrimal puncta.
  3. Medial canthal troughing: Medial canthal troughing occurs when the skin at the medial canthus forms with a widened trough-like triangular area which funnels tears onto the face, again avoiding the nasolacrimal puncta.

A medial canthoplasty is a surgical option to reduce tear staining in some dogs with these types of normal eyelid conformations. Cryotherapy can be used to treat a haired lacrimal caruncle. However, in most dogs neither procedure is warranted. Any ocular irritation in a dog with any of these variations in eyelid conformation will cause more than the typical tear staining. Allergies, teething, corneal ulcer, or other ocular disease may also be the culprit.

Treating Tear Staining Starts with Grooming

Step one in treating tear staining is keeping the hair around the eyes and nose as short as possible. The next step is to keep the face clean and dry. A warm washcloth and baby shampoo are safe to use to clean around the eyes. There are many types of eyelid and eyelash cleaning pads that can also be used to clean the face and around the eyes. Contact lens solution containing boric acid can be used to clean around the eyes but not in the eyes as the boric acid in the contact lens solution oxidizes the iron in the porphyrins and may lighten the staining. After washing the face, always dry the area with a clean towel to prevent irritation or infection secondary to the wet skin.

A Note about Tylosin-containing Products

Tylosin-containing products claim to treat or prevent tear staining. However, tylosin’s effect is unpredictable and often has intermittent efficacy. Because tylosin is an antibiotic, there is controversy using it for cosmesis due to possible drug resistance. There is also controversy regarding tylosin’s addition to over-the-counter medications that do not always list it as an
ingredient or identify how much tylosin is in the product. Many probiotic supplements claim to decrease tear staining as well.

A Veterinary Ophthalmologist Can Help

Dog’s with tear staining should be evaluated to rule out an underlying ophthalmic problem that requires specific treatment. If the tear staining is secondary to conformation, the treatment plan should be an educational discussion focusing on proper cleaning and grooming. Referral to an ophthalmologist is appropriate to rule out underlying ocular disease and to discuss the possible surgical options, as appropriate.


Vanessa J. Kuonen Cavens, DVM, MS, Diplomate, ACVO is a Veterinary Ophthalmologist at MedVet Cincinnati and MedVet Dayton. She has been on staff at MedVet since 2008. Dr. Kuonen Cavens attended Brigham Young University where she earned a Bachelor of Science degree and Kansas State University where she earned both a Masters of Science and Doctor of Veterinary Medicine degrees. Following her graduation from veterinary school, Dr. Kuonen Cavens completed a yearlong internship in small animal medicine and surgery, a three-year residency in ophthalmology, and earned a Masters of Science at The Ohio State University College of Veterinary Medicine.

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