You give your pooch everything she could want—plenty of playtime, love and snuggles; her favorite treats; nutritionally-balanced food; and quality medical care. Why, then, does she look as though she is crying?!
At AskVet, many dog parents come to us asking questions about their pup’s runny eyes. In some cases, this symptom is nothing to worry about—but in others, runny eyes can indicate a significant medical problem. We’re here to help you figure out what is normal, and when to see your veterinarian.
Epiphora and Tear-Staining
If your dog has streaks of reddish-brown, moist fur that start at the inner corner of her eye and form a line under her eye or alongside her nose, then she may have something called “epiphora”—the medical term for excess tears. This does NOT mean that your dog is sad or crying—instead, it’s likely due to the shape of her face and structures around the eye, or chronic irritation of the surface of the eye.
Her fur is stained by a non-harmful molecule in the tears called porphyrin, which changes color to reddish-brown when it comes in contact with the fur. Porphyrins are not harmful and they do not have any adverse effects, so that’s good news! Why, then, would your pup have tear staining in the first place?
Normal Eyelid Anatomy
First, let’s talk about normal eyelid anatomy. You know that the eyes produce tears to lubricate the surface of the eye, and to help clear out any irritating particles from the air (like dust or pollen). Tears are being produced by the tear glands around the eye, and as they are produced, the tear film is drained into the nose through holes called puncta.
Puncta are located in the corners of the eyes, within the soft pink tissue that surrounds the eyeball. These little holes open into a long skinny tube, called the nasolacrimal duct, that carries tears down the inside of the nose and back of the throat. These structures involved in draining tears are why we experience a runny nose when crying—and can even taste our own tears!
However, If your pup’s eyeballs are not set deeply enough in the sockets for the puncta to “catch” the tears (think of a cute Pug with bulging eyes), her tears will spill over onto her face. Eventually, gravity takes the tear film either under her eye socket or down the sides of her nose. This form of tear staining is common in breeds with prominent eyes and shallow eye sockets, like Pugs, Boston Terriers, Bulldogs of all types, and Chihuahuas. Both eyes will be affected, and the pup is usually not painful—unless there are complications (see below).
Occasionally, a dog will have a clog in one or both puncta—the drainage holes in the corner of the eye. This clog can be congenital (meaning the pup was born with puncta that are sealed shut), or can happen due to inflammation and debris clogging the system. Sometimes your veterinarian can clear out a clog by flushing the duct under general anesthesia.
Chronic Eye Irritation
We all know the miserable feeling of something stuck in our eye—it feels like a piece of sand on the surface, and our eye immediately starts producing tons of tears! Dogs have the same natural response to something irritating the surface of the eye, and this can lead to a runny eye and tear staining.
What could possibly be causing irritation to the surface of your dog’s eyes, resulting in too many tears?
—Eyelashes in the Wrong Place—Some dogs are born with or develop teeny tiny extra hairs that grow on the inside of the eyelid instead of the outside. These little hairs cause irritation to your pup’s eye with every blink until they can be removed by your veterinarian or an eye specialist (ophthalmologist).
–Eyelids that Roll Inwards (Entropion)—You can imagine that if your eyelids rolled inwards towards your eyeball, this would cause major irritation! When the eyelids roll far enough towards the surface of the eye, eyelashes and hairs on the face can actually start rubbing the surface of the eye. This eye condition is called entropion, and it is more common in some dog breeds than others. English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, and Shar-Peis are known to be born with this problem more frequently than other breeds. Fortunately, a minor surgery can be performed to remove the roll and restore your pup to comfortable vision.
–Facial Hair Contacting the Eye Surface—In many dogs, hair growing from the bridge of the nose and near the corners of the eyes can sprout in unfortunate directions. If the hair is not kept very short, the tips of these hairs can rub the surface of the eye, causing continuous excess tear production. As you can imagine, this condition (called “trichiasis”) is more common in breeds whose eyes are located closer to the bridge of the nose—like Shih-Tzus, English Bulldogs, French Bulldogs, Pugs, Boston Terriers, and other small breeds like Maltese and Yorkies.
Sudden Eye Irritation
If your pup has never had an eye problem in the past, but you are noticing that he looks like he is crying from one or both eyes all of a sudden, then he could be experiencing sudden irritation. This can happen if a piece of dust or plant material is blown by the wind into his eye, if he has an eye infection or has scratched the surface of his eye, if a tear duct has suddenly become clogged, or if there is a painful eye condition that has not been assessed.
Since all of these issues can potentially be serious threats to your dog’s vision, it’s essential to see a veterinarian right away if you notice a sudden change in your dog’s tear production.
So, what happens when excessive tears run down your pup’s face over a long period of time? The moisture from the tears can eventually soak through the fur and reach your dog’s skin. Since your pup can’t dab his face with a towel, this moisture eventually seeps down through the fur to the surface of his skin. Normal bacteria and yeast on the surface of your dog’s skin LOVE this warm, damp environment and start reproducing at a faster rate, causing a skin infection. You may start to see some redness or smell an odor when infection has set in. This is called dermatitis, and it can be irritating, itchy, and sometimes even painful for your pup. Dogs with cute smooshed noses and little skin folds on their faces are especially prone to this condition, so checking those folds and keeping them clean is very important.
In cases of chronic eye irritation from entropion, trichiasis, or eyelashes that are rubbing the surface of your dog’s eye, the body will try to protect the eye from further irritation. How does your pup’s body do this? The same way our bodies try to protect our skin from chronic irritation—by depositing pigment on the surface! (Think of a suntan or sudden explosion of freckles after a day in the sunshine.) You may see a thin black patchy film forming on the surface of the eyeball if you look very closely.
Unfortunately, pigment on the surface of the eye does not go away with time, and it will eventually cause vision loss, since your pup is looking through the equivalent of a dirty windshield. For this reason, it’s important to see your veterinarian if there is an irritating issue that can be solved with medication or a minor procedure.
When to Worry
If runny eyes are so common, when should you worry about them? Here is a handy list of symptoms to watch for that may indicate a more serious issue might be affecting your dog’s eye. Seeing any of these signs should prompt an immediate consultation with an AskVet veterinarian, or scheduling an appointment with your pup’s family vet:
–Any sudden increase in your dog’s tears
–Squinting or holding the eye closed, due to pain in the eye
–Redness to the eye or the pink part of the eye (conjunctiva)
–Rubbing face on the floor, or rubbing the eye with paws
–Yellow or green eye discharge
–Change in color of the surface of your dog’s eyeball (cloudy, blue, white, green)
–Change in size of the eyeball or swelling of the eyelids
–Third eyelid raised or more visible than normal
How to Prevent Tear-Staining
Since tear-staining is such a common problem, and epiphora (runny eyes) affects so many dogs, there are many options on the market to prevent tear staining. Oral supplements are designed to reduce the amount of pigment (porphyrin) in the tear film, and can be given as a powder sprinkled on your pup’s food every day or in a tasty chew.
Some of these products contain low doses of an antibiotic called tylosin, and for this reason they can be a bit controversial. By exposing your dog to chronic low doses of an antibiotic, it is theoretically possible that a resistant infection could develop somewhere in her body. For this reason, we recommend discussing any supplement options with your AskVet or family veterinarian.
If your dog has hairs that are rubbing against the surface of the eyes, eliminating the hair should eliminate (or greatly reduce) the problem. Surgery can be done for eyelids that roll inwards, and hairs growing in abnormal places (such as the inside of the eyelids) can be removed. Also, hairs on the bridge of your dog’s nose that are rubbing the inside corner of her eyes should be kept as short as possible to prevent rubbing.
How to Clean Runny Eyes
The best way to prevent staining caused by excessive tears is to keep your dog’s face clean. (Easier said than done!) If you have a new puppy, now is the time to train him that having his face cleaned is a positive and happy experience (accompanied by lots of treats!) so that he tolerates it in the future. For more helpful information on things you need for a puppy contact our team of experts today.
If you have an adult dog, it will take some time for him to welcome face-cleaning, but if it is accompanied by treats, playtime with a favorite toy, or cuddles—he will grow to tolerate it over time, so don’t give up! Keeping your dog’s face clean is an important part of his overall health and well-being. Just by wiping your dog’s face with a damp washcloth every day, you can dilute the pigment (porphyrin) and decrease the amount of time it sits on your dog’s fur and cause staining. Dogs with skin folds on their faces may benefit from daily cleaning with medicated wipes too, as recommended from your veterinarian.
There are several different wipes on the market that purportedly reduce tear staining. If you are using one of these products, remember: it’s very important to NEVER allow any chemicals, from wipes or soap/shampoo, to touch your dog’s eyes! These materials can cause a chemical burn on your dog’s eyes and create an even worse eye problem. For this reason, it’s probably best to clean with plain water!
With any product, remember that the tear staining will take several months to fade and for new, unstained hair to grow in place of the darkened fur.
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Allison Ward, DVM
Dr. Allison Ward grew up in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. and started working in veterinary hospitals when she was 14 years old. After graduating from veterinary school in 2011, she completed a small animal rotating internship in New Jersey, followed by a neurology/neurosurgery internship in Miami. After completing this advanced training, Dr. Ward then moved on to general small animal practice. Dr. Ward’s professional interests include feline medicine, neurology, and pain management. Her passion for educating pet owners carries over into her work with AskVet, and she loves being able to help pets and their parents at all times of the day (and night!). She currently resides in sunny south Florida with her two cats, Larry and George.