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A Veterinary Guide to Tear Stains

tear stains

Classic “before and after” picture of the type used by tear stain snake oil salesmen.

Oy vey, this topic’s a mess, isn’t it? I tell you what, researching this article revealed a TON of misinformation. I’m going to attempt to clear it up.

Quick rule of thumb – any time there’s a million suggested treatments for something, that means that no one treatment works for everyone.

This much is clear. Some dogs produce excessive tears – primarily because when humans turned wolves into poodles, bichons, Maltese, boxers, bulldogs, etc, that selective breeding created short noses and protruding eyes that contribute to abnormally narrow and often crooked tear ducts. Excessive tears, then, is a problem that can’t necessarily be fixed in most of these dogs (because we bred it into them in the first place), but the effects of too many tears can be managed.

Other veterinary / medical causes for excessive tearing, by the way, include ingrown eye lashes, abnormally large tear producing glands, abnormally small tear duct openings, stress, drugs, poor quality diet, smoking, ear infection, and plastic food bowls. ALL OF THESE SHOULD BE RULED OUT BY YOUR VETERINARIAN BEFORE YOU READ THE REST OF THIS ARTICLE.

Importantly, young puppies will tend to produce more tears when they are teething. When the dog reaches maturity, tear staining should lessen.

Now, assuming you and your veterinarian have ruled out medical causes of excessive tear production, what now can be done for the stains that often result? And why do these stains happen in the first place?

Let’s begin! Grab yourself a cup of tea, this might take a minute…

Tear stains are usually caused by dye molecules called porphyrins. Porphyrins are iron-containing molecules, produced when the body breaks down red blood cells. Porphyrins are excreted primarily through bile and the intestinal tract, but in dogs a significant amount of porphyrin is excreted through tears, saliva and also urine.

When porphyrin containing tears or saliva sits on white fur for any length of time, stains result. These iron-related stains intensify/darken in the presence of sunlight.

All dogs produce porphyrin, but of course porphyrin staining is most noticeable on light colored dogs. If you have ever noticed a white dog who has been licking or chewing on his leg, the hair in that area will turn iron-brown in color as well.

Primarily, then, most tear stains in most dogs can be simply prevented by keeping the face meticulously free of porphyrin-containing tears. That means keeping the face hair trimmed, and wiping the face at least twice daily with a slightly damp wash cloth, to dilute out and wash away the tears.

Or, if you want to get really fancy, cleaning under the eyes with ordinary contact lens cleaning solution (containing dilute boric acid, that oxidizes the iron in the porphyrins and lightens the color) will help keep things neat and tidy.

But cleaning the face certainly isn’t the whole story, is it……..? What about Red Yeast?

Oy, Red Yeast, also known on various websites, blogs and forums as ” Ptyrosporin “. Well folks, Ptyrosporin do not exist.

Time to learn about yeast – AFTER A QUICK HISTORY LESSON

Once upon a time (1874), a fellow named Malassez isolated yeast cells from human dandruff scales (ew!). In 1889, a different fellow named Baillon included this group of yeasts under the genus Malassezia, named after the first guy. A third dude named Sabouraud (1904) considered this organism as a cause of dandruff and gave it a new name, Pityrosporum malassez. In the following years, there was controversy regarding the generic name of the fungus, and in 1984, Malassezia finally gained priority over Pityrosporum and was accepted as the generic name for the fungus.

So Malassezia = Pityrosporum, but Ptyrosporin doesn’t exist. Somewhere along the line, probably before the official name change in 1984 (some of these internet legends persist from BEFORE the internet was even invented LOL!) someone boogered up the spelling and mislabelled this yeast as Ptyrosporin. Suffice it to say, the Red Yeast everyone is talking about is not some magical red-stain-making yeast strain found only in dog tears, it’s the same, brown, boring ol’ Malassezia that causes ear infections and skin infections and all kinds of other routine grossness in dogs. This finding was a shock to me, as a tiny little misspelling propagated over thousands of websites has led to a massive misunderstanding of what causes tear stains.

Who cares what it’s called, Dr. Magnusson? How do you treat it?

Well, I care, and here’s why. If your dog develops a YEAST INFECTION aside her nose as the result of the fur under her eyes being chronically wet with tears, because you’re not cleaning her face and keeping her fur trimmed, that’s a medical condition easily treated with proper grooming and upkeep.

BROWN staining from yucky yeast infection secondary to poor grooming maintenance, and RED staining from porphyrins, are two different problems, which is why oral supplements aimed at reducing porphyrin production will not work in all dogs.

Now that’s cleared up, why do some dogs make more porphyrin than others? That’s the $64,000 question right there.

The answer, of course, is not a yeast problem but rather a bacterial problem. Which bacteria, exactly, contribute to excessive porphyrin production? We don’t know for sure. There is some suspicion (though nobody has ever proved this) that our old friend Malassezia (aka Pityrosporium, aka NOT Ptyrosporin) are still involved somehow, even though we know very well the problem is primarily bacteria. Some believe the Malassezia somehow interacts with the bacteria in the tears of these dogs, and that somehow Malassezia-fueled bacteria (or bacteria-fueled Malassezia?) then produce porphyrin. The mechanism of this bacterial porphyrin production is unclear.

What is clear, however, is that giving dogs certain antibiotics eliminates excessive porphyrin production in some dogs, so yeast infection is not the only possible cause of tear stains. Tylosin, the antibiotic in Angels’ Eyes, is often effective in these bacterial cases. Since we know Tylosin is NOT effective against Malassezia / Pityrosporium / Ptyrosporin, that MUST mean that chronic low grade bacterial infections are the cause of tear stains in some dogs.

Wait, did you just say that Angels Eyes and Angels Glow are effective because they contain ANTIBIOTICS?!?

Yup.

Why isn’t the FDA more concerned about the OTC use of an antibiotic? Shouldn’t that be illegal? It’s clearly illegal for any company to make a product containing any other antibiotic, but somehow “supplements” containing Tylosin have managed to fly under the radar. Probably not forever, as every other country in the world has outlawed Angels Eyes and their ilk and some have taken action to remove these products from store shelves (here’s a supporting document from the UK).

As with any antibiotic, Tylosin is usually harmless in small doses, but may be harmful to some dogs. At the very least, giving low-dose broad-spectrum antibiotics to any dog is likely to encourage bacterial resistance, a problem the human medical community has been hounding the veterinary community about for years (pardon the pun).

ARE THERE ORAL MEDICATIONS THAT REDUCE PORPHYRIN PRODUCTION AND DO NOT CONTAIN TYLOSIN?

I’m so glad you asked! Of course there are! Naturally, now that we’re getting into the fuzzy realm of nutraceuticals, probiotics and other poorly-studied supplements with little to no oversight or regulation, I can’t really vouch for any of these products. Testimonials abound, you’re mostly on your own when choosing one over the other, but as with any product, you’ll find someone who swears by each of them, and someone else who says it’s voodoo nonsense and doesn’t work.

NO MEDICATION IS HARMLESS. None. Not one. Every drug, supplement, and herb has some type of side effect. To say otherwise is negligent and irresponsible. So buyer beware, and always consult with your veterinarian before starting your dog on any supplement please.

Now then… several “natural” supplements have surfaced that claim to reduce tear staining, do not contain obvious antibiotics, and are less likely to be seized by the FDA for breaking the law, so if you want to try one, that’s your prerogative.

Here’s a couple I’ve found that some people like and some people don’t. I don’t endorse any of these, this list is for information purposes only:

NaturVet tear stain supplement

Tearlax

HERE’S MY BOTTOM LINE – HOW TO TREAT TEAR STAINS:

STEP 1: Meticulously maintain your dog’s clean face. Wipe face with a damp cloth twice a day to remove excessive tears, and keep regular appointments with the groomer.

STEP 2: Throw away your plastic food bowls. Use stainless steel, porcelain or glass. Plastic food bowls often develop tiny cracks that harbor bacteria and cause facial irritation.

STEP 3: Consider a mild boric acid containing solution as found in some contact lens cleaners, or use liquid vitamin C, on a cotton ball, to wipe the dog’s face and lighten the tear stains that have already formed. Acids like boric and citric (Vit C) presumably oxidize the porphyrin iron compounds and lighten them, whereas sunlight makes the stains darker.

STEP 4: If porphyria remains despite your best grooming efforts, consider a NON-Tylosin containing oral supplement like the ones listed above.

STEP 5: If your tap water happens to be high in mineral content or iron, consider giving the dog bottled water, or use a filter to create cleaner water.

STEP 6: If you insist on using antibiotics, under veterinary supervision, drugs like doxycycline, metronidazole and enrofloxacin have all been used with some success.

BONUS? – STEP 7: Tums or Apple Cider Vinegar? – I have found no evidence that adding a tiny amount of antacid or vinegar to your dog’s giant tub of stomach acid will have any effect at all on the pH of their tears, so I’m calling BS on this one.

BONUS – STEP 8: Does a higher quality diet reduce porphyrin production in some dogs? Certainly. Veterinarians always recommend feeding your dog the highest quality balanced diet you can afford. Some folks swear by homemade or raw diets, others are concerned about nutrient balance issues with homemade diets, most veterinarians prefer you feed a well-studied commercial diet of some kind, from a major manufacturer. No clear right or wrong here, do what works for you and your family.

I DO NOT RECOMMEND you use OTC Tylosin, Terramycin (oft misspelled Teramyacin), makeup remover, milk of magnesia, yogurt, hydrogen peroxide, gold bond, corn syrup, or any other voodoo concoction to remove tear stains, as obviously putting ANY of these things INSIDE the eye is likely to make your dog really unhappy.

That’s all!! Hopefully, you’ve learned that PROPER GROOMING AND MAINTENANCE of your dog’s face is the primary treatment for tear stains, and do please see your veterinarian to rule out medical causes of excessive tears, before starting your dog on any supplements! Thanks for reading, please share this article if you liked it!

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  • Stacie

    Thank you! If nothing else for the validation that this is a big, weird topic. I love that your advice includes things I already have at home. Perhaps I will take some before and after pics, creating a regimen from this article : )

  • On the Floor @Dove

    Nice of you to take the time to explore and explain this gray-area subject. Great article!

  • cotondetulear

    This is a great article. It gives sound answears to the problem of tear staining, which is the case of my dog. I am going to start with the most natural methods, like cleaning her face 2x daily + changing diet. thanks for your time on that!

  • whitedogowner

    I followed all of the advice laid out in this article and still had a meticulously-groomed, well-fed white borzoi with a bright red clown mouth. What I learned: all high quality foods are not the same, so even if you’re feeding top of the line, you may need to find a different top of the line brand that doesn’t trigger the red stains – it took years to zero in on a food that wouldn’t turn his mouth red. Doesn’t take long for the red to show up, but many months for whatever causes it to get out of his system, and then many more months for the hair to grow out and grow back in white. My advice to anyone struggling with this is to not give up on finding a food that works – be systematic and give it lots of time.

    • http://www.leospetcare.com/ Greg Magnusson, DVM

      Brilliant advice, thank you!!

    • http://www.leospetcare.com/ Greg Magnusson, DVM

      Brilliant advice, thank you for sharing!!

  • goodwordtoday

    Very helpful!!! Thanks for steering me away from Angels Eyes.

  • Elaine

    I still didn’t get the bottom line for what works besides the grooming. Is saline solution or boric acid better at maintaining red tear stains from my white dog?

  • Dooly Sato

    I have to disagree with the # 7 on Apple cider vinegar. I’ve recently had to deal with tear stains on one of my dogs, Sam, who’s a year-old Maltese. He never had such problems but a couple of months ago he was getting bad tear stains. I looked for the cause and realized that it was from the new dried food promotion I got for free from a pet store. My other dog, Dooly, was fine, but Sam obviously was allergic to some ingredients in the new food.

    Anyway, to make the story short, I started to feed them organic plain yogurt and raw organic apple cider vinegar. I’ve known yogurt is very beneficial for such tear stains thanks to probiotics, and I’ve read about the apple cider vinegar remedies on such problems. So I tried both, and Sam seems to be back to old white fluffy face again. I still feed him the “wrong” food, but I think he’s adjusted to the ingredients/food now as he’s still consuming the yogurt/apple cider vinegar along with it.

    Oh, the important point is that Apple cider vinegar probably doesn’t work, because it has to be RAW ACV with the mother. I think there’s a huge difference between those.

    In a way, you’re right that apple cider vinegar does not work; but raw organic apple cider vinegar has better chance to work for most dogs. Also, a good diet with enzymes and probiotics is a must.

  • dman

    I have used the natuVet supplement with success for years. i used to use one called angels delight but it isn’t available anymore

  • dman

    hi greg

    why do you never see evidence of porpyhrins on the tissue after wiping their faces (if they are light reactive)?

  • abbey

    thanks SO MUCH for this! my small furry child (maltese, age 3) recently stopped being bright white around his face, mouth and nails, and after endless googling i assumed he had a red yeast infection all around that spread from his chronic brown ear bacteria issue (which i treat daily with vet prescriptions). instead of trying one of those semi-antibiotic products i’d already had reservations about, i’ll definitely try cleaning his face twice a day and changing his plastic fountain bowl thing to a metal one–so good to know that so many of these bacteria paranoias are false, and that it’s just a cosmetic issue from tearing and licking his feet (he’s always had weird allergies). this is the first good “cut through the myths” article i’ve read–i don’t even live near indianapolis, but appreciate a good source of REAL info. thanks!

  • GT

    I just want to say thanks for this article! My dog has tear stairs, beard stains and stains on his tummy. When his wrinkles got a little irritated, I rushed him to the vet. The vet gave him antibiotics to help ward off any infection – but as a result I noticed his stains all over were disappearing! I was confused, because I guess I assumed it was yeast = porphyrin causing the stains – thinking it was the same thing (I was his face twice a day). So this post explains that his issue mush be the porphyrin issue – and that is why it went away with antibiotics!!! I wasnt sure why it was cured and what to do when it came back, but now I at least have an idea. I hope that continuing to keep his face/mouth/tummy clean daily will keep the issue away! If not, I will look for holisitic/natural cures that you mentioned about – also Angels Eyes now has an all natural version (I tried the old version but it didnt help, so I assume Tylosin was NOT the antibiotic needed – my dog took Cephalexin, so something in that helped). He’s feeling / looking great now!

    OH and just so anyone reading this understands, the antibiotics did NOT take away the red fur. The new hair growing, comes in stain free because its not being reddened by the moisture. My dogs red hair is fading away slowly as it grows in.

  • Shamayn

    Loved your article. Informative and entertaining! Shalom

  • oosak

    |Great Post!!! Thanks so much. I loved your writing style

  • oosak

    |Great Post!!! Thanks so much. I loved your writing style

  • Rosemary Hernandez

    How do you use the Raw Apple Cidar vinegar & organic yogurt?

  • Ang

    Just stressing on the Daily Grooming of eyes at Home!!!!! having it done once a month by a groomer is not enough! Flea comb can be use around eyes! I have a white poodle and I use one!

  • Nancy K. Reel

    You have to use the right version of Angel eyes, not all of it has the Tylosin in it, The one that does work has the yellow ring around the bottom of the jar and they like the chicken flavor. I use it and I have also started using coconut oil ,virgin unrefined , do not use the refined cause it has all the good stuff taken out. The oil is working and it is an all natural product.

    • andrfields

      I’ve used Angel eyes with success along with daily cleaning. The Angel Eyes use has only been temporary not long -term; but I do need to change out the little one’s bowl.

  • Hereshoping Themayanswereright

    My rescue dog developed tear stains after being vaccinated. She gets species appropriate food All organic, free range chicken, grass fed beef,marrow bones, so there is NO way it is the food causing it. I’m starting to believe the holistic vets who say vaccines are toxic and mess up your dog’s liver and immune system. There is no way this staining is normal, since it occurred only AFTER multiple same day vaccinations.

  • nj

    someone told me to try tums for the dog. but tums come in large sizes and the small sizes – also they come in flavors. I’m so confused as to which ones to give, if any.

  • Claude Stein

    I too am a bit confused. We have a bichon who did not respond to Angel Eyes. In addition to grooming and cleansing, what over the counter product should we/can we try?

  • OrigNorCalGal

    Thank you SO much for the clarification and simple answers! I am appalled at some of the solutions listed through a Goggle search. Especially from groomers and ‘show-dog-people’ where several suggested incredibly dangerous things so your dog would look good in the show ring or for pics, etc. Many of these ideas would cause severe eye distress/discomfort and some even blindness (most suggest you “watch closely so the ‘product’ ie: bleach, hydrogen peroxide, cornstarch, etc dies not get INTO the dogs eyes) My 4 week old Border Collie puppies seem to have some extra tearing, which shows as reddish-brown on the whiter ones (which I have never seen before on my dogs or previous litters years ago -different dogs/same breed) but the ARE teething, so..I have been wiping under eyes with soft warm washrag which obviously helps, but will switch to distilled water and possibly add some diluted saline solution as per your suggestion. I also was very skeptical @ the ‘Vinegar’ or Tums solutions, and agree w/your final word(s) on that as well.

    Thanx for being a light in a dark internet tunnel of BS, I feel better already!

    (Wilhelmina from CA/USA)

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