By Carrie Hyde, The Spaw Pet Life Coach | January 12, 2022
An Important Warning Sign – The Spaw
Tear stains are an unsightly problem that affects many dogs. Unfortunately, this issue isn’t just a cosmetic one.
Dog tear stains are often a symptom of a larger problem and a significant warning sign owners need to pay attention to.
If your dog suffers from constant or occasional tear stains, you’ll want to keep reading. In this article, we’ll look at the many causes of tear stains and how each can be addressed to tackle the root of the problem. By resolving the true cause of the issue and rebalancing your dog’s system, you can not only put an end to tear stains but help improve your dog’s overall health.
What Are Tear Stains?
Tear stains are the reddish stains that appear below some dogs’ eyes. They are caused, in the most direct sense, by porphyrin–a reddish-brown pigment found in tears.
Porphyrin is produced as the body breaks down iron. This molecule is excreted through many different pathways, including the gut, saliva, urine, and–you guessed it–tears!
All dogs produce some amount of porphyrin in their tears, but some produce more than others. Dogs with light-colored fur are more likely to have visible tear stains from excess porphyrin than dogs with darker coats. No matter what color the coat, visible tear stains are a sign that your dog has more porphyrin in their system than is normal.
What Causes Tear Stains?
There are a number of health issues that can cause your dog to produce too much porphyrin. Some of the causes are relatively benign while others can be a sign of a serious problem
For some dogs, the cause of their tear stains isn’t just about what is going on inside the body, but how their body, particularly their eyes, are structured.
Tear duct malformation, bulging eyes, shortened muzzle, and eyelid malformation can all cause excessive tear production. All of these causes are determined by your dog’s genetics. But this does not mean that every dog with a squished face is destined to live with tear stains.
Tears that contain a normal amount of porphyrin should not leave behind large, dark stains, even if there is an excess amount of tears. But if the amount of porphyrin is even slightly elevated, those extra tears will cause stains to form quicker than they would in a dog that sheds fewer tears.
If your dog suffers from entropion, has bulging eyes or a shortened muzzle, or has a tear duct issue and suffers from tear stains, there is likely something else going on inside their body that needs to be addressed.
While most people will point out structural issues as a cause for tear stains, the truth is that a predisposition to excess tear shedding acts only as an advanced warning system. In the case of structural issues, you can’t reduce the number of tears your dog sheds, but you can often treat the cause of the excess porphyrin in those tears to eliminate their tear stains.
Much like a genetic predisposition and structural malformation, irritants can cause your dog to shed more tears than normal.
Smoke, dust, allergens, corneal abrasions, and other eye irritants can all cause excess tear production.
Just as with structural problems, these issues alone are unlikely to cause large, dark tear stains. If your dog has tear stains and is producing more tears due to an irritant, you should work to both eliminate the cause of the excess tears and the cause of the excess porphyrin.
One of the most common causes of excess porphyrin in tears is excess bacteria or yeast in the body. That is because many bacteria and yeast produce porphyrin as part of their metabolic cycle. Just as a dog’s cells release this red pigment into their bodily fluids, so do the bacteria and yeast living inside them.
Often, tear stains are a sign that your dog has an infection in their eye, tear ducts, mouth, or other nearby location. Ulcers, conjunctivitis, untreated corneal abrasions and nasolacrimal obstructions are commonly associated with the sudden appearance of tear stains. Similarly, yeast infections in the folds of skin near the eye or inside the body can cause tear stains.
Other times, excess porphyrin is the effect of systemic bacterial and yeast imbalances rather than a concentrated infection.
Because porphyrin is created during the breakdown of iron within the body, excess intake of iron can directly increase the amount of porphyrin in your dog’s tears.
This excess iron intake can come from both your dog’s diet and from the water they drink.
Liver, egg yolk, sardines, and deep green vegetables all contain a high amount of iron. Many commercial dog foods, especially those containing few quality meat ingredients, will add an iron supplement to their recipe. Ferrous sulfate is one of the more common forms of added iron you’ll see on dog food ingredient lists.
Consuming iron-rich water can also cause an excess of porphyrin production in the body. City water is typically monitored for excess iron levels and treated to reduce levels as needed. Wellwater, on the other hand, commonly has high levels of metal in it. If this is the kind of water you use, it is worth testing it periodically for iron and other metals.
In addition to causing tear stains, excess iron in the diet can also cause iron toxicity. When consumed in high amounts, this metal begins to accumulate inside organs and can easily damage the gut, liver, and brain.
Gut Bacteria Imbalances
As we covered above, imbalances in the body can lead to an excess of porphyrin-producing bacteria and yeast. Often, these imbalances start in the gut.
Many harmful bacteria, including E. coli, produce porphyrin while many beneficial bacteria, such as Bacteroides, consume porphyrin(source). Bacteroides and other porphyrin-consuming probiotics are commonly found in the canine gut. These good bacteria are also responsible for keeping yeast populations in check.
If the balance of good and bad bacteria is thrown out of whack, more porphyrins will be produced and less consumed by your dog’s gut biome. This can lead very quickly to the formation of tear stains.
There are a number of factors that can cause gut bacterial imbalances, including allergies, poor diet, and stress. Antibiotic use is often associated with an initial reduction in tear stains followed by a sudden resurgence of stains. This is because these medications kill off both porphyrin-producing bacteria and beneficial bacteria. Once the medication is stopped these two types of bacteria repopulate the gut at different rates, allowing pathogenic bacteria a chance to take over.
How to Get Rid of Tear Stains
Now that you understand the many causes of excess porphyrin and tear stains, it’s time to talk about how you can tackle this unsightly problem–and the root causes behind it–for good.
Talk To Your Veterinarian
If your dog suddenly develops tear stains after not having dealt with the problem previously, your first action should be to take them to the vet.
Often, the sudden onset of tear stains is a sign of a bacterial infection in or near the eye. Your veterinarian should examine your dog for signs of infection, scratched cornea, glaucoma, or other common eye infections and problems.
If the issue is an infection, your dog will likely be placed on antibiotics. In this case, make sure to follow our protocol below for rebalancing the gut microbiome once your dog has finished the round of treatment.
Address Hight Iron Intake
If your dog has always suffered from tear stains or if the problem suddenly presents itself after a move, it is a good idea to have your water tested for high levels of iron. This can be done easily using any number of water quality testing products.
If you do find that your water has a lot of iron in it, you should install a purifier on your drinking water tap or switch to bottled water for you and your dog.
Address Gut Imbalances
Gut imbalances can be caused by a long list of factors, which often makes it hard to know if this is the true cause of your dog’s tear stains.
One of the easiest ways to find out if an imbalanced bacterial load is to blame is to have your dog’s gut biome tested. For this, we recommend AnimalBiome microbiome testing. This test can easily be done from home by collecting a fecal sample from your dog (or cat) and sending it into the AnimalBiome lab.
Along with your results, you’ll get information on how to rebalance your dog’s gut using supplements and diet therapy.
Improve Your Dog’s Diet
If your dog is eating a grocery store brand dog food or other low-quality commercial or home-prepared diet, then your first step toward rebalancing their system and eradicating tear stains should be to improve their diet.
Foods with excess amounts of carbohydrates are one of the leading causes of non-antibiotic-related gut imbalances in dogs. These types of foods also tend to be the ones that have added iron supplements, which only compounds the problem. By switching your dog to a higher quality diet that features quality meats as the primary ingredient, you can help their gut heal and reduce excess porphyrin production.
Oral Tear Stain Treatments
There are a number of tear stain treatments available on the market. Many oral tear stain treatments work by targeting the bacteria that produce porphyrin. In fact, one of the most famous tear stain supplements used to contain a prescription antibiotic until the FDA cracked down and forced them to change their formula.
While these supplements can be effective in reducing tear stains if the cause of your dog’s issue is excess bacteria, none of them will address the cause of the imbalance. It is for this reason that we don’t recommend any oral tear stain supplements. Instead, we suggest treating the root of the problem using the methods mentioned above.
The one exception to this rule is if your dog’s tear stains are caused by a yeast infection. If this is the case, adding raw goat’s milk to your dog’s diet can help reduce their yeast load and rebalance their system. This is because goat’s milk contains high levels of caprylic acid, a type of fat known to destroy yeast cells. Once the initial yeast infection has been controlled, you should still take the necessary steps to improve your dog’s diet and address their gut health to keep their yeast load under control in the future.
Topical Tear Stain Treatments
While oral supplements tend to be a mask for deeper problems, topical treatments can be useful in removing old tear stains as you fight to prevent new ones. There are plenty of these treatments on the market to choose from, as well. But, once again, goat’s milk tends to be one of the more effective options.
To use raw goat’s milk topically, simply dunk a cotton ball in the liquid and rub it around on the tear stain. Leave it there overnight and then wipe the area clean in the morning. Repeat as needed until the tear stain disappears. Unlike many other topical solutions, you don’t have to worry if a little goat’s milk gets in the eye because it doesn’t sting or cause any damage the way some products do. Why raw goat’s milk works so well is a bit of a mystery. Unlike cow’s milk, raw goat’s milk is filled with a number of beneficial nutrients, phytochemicals, and probiotics. Most likely, raw goat’s milk works to remove topical tear stains due to the collective actions of caprylic acid, lactic acid, and bacteriocins (found in fermented raw milk products).
No More Tear Stains, Healthier Dog
Tear stains are a warning sign that there is a problem inside your dog’s body. These unsightly stains are almost always indicative of an infection, an imbalance, or excess iron intake. If your dog is exposed to irritants or has structural eyes issues, tear stains will be more pronounced but still usually indicate a deeper issue. Luckily, most of these issues can be resolved with a little investigation and hard work. By testing your water, testing your dog’s gut biome, improving their diet, treating any infections, and taking steps to maximize gut health, you can say goodbye to dog tear stains once and for all.
By Carrie Hyde, The Spaw Pet Life Coach | January 12, 2022
Written for The Spaw by Sara Seitz, Professional Freelance Writer and Novelist with Pen and Post
Carrie Hyde is the founder, owner, and Pet Life Coach of The Spaw in Tustin, CA. Carrie’s extensive experience and understanding of pet nutrition and coaching enabled her to create The Spawdcast, a podcast dedicated to educating pet parents and pet industry professionals on ALL the options available to their pets. Her mission is to open pet-owner’s eyes to the questions they may not even know to ask, to shine a light on the many myths that have been part of pet care for decades, and to offer whole solutions for their pets. Carrie Hyde is a certified pet nutritionist with the goal of helping pet parents & pet professionals with a new understanding of how to care for pets in a “whole and natural” way.
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