How to Clean Your Dog's Eyes and Get Rid of Tear Stains

A veterinary expert explains why our canine companions get them in the first place.

Ever notice those reddish brown stains that are visible around the inner corners of your dog's eyes? They are known as tear stains and, on dogs with light-colored fur, they can be quite noticeable. How do you clean your dog's eyes? And why do these tear stains happen at all? "First, let's be clear—you should never clean your dog's actual eye," explains Christie Long, DVM, Head of Veterinary Medicine at Modern Animal. "Sometimes, tear stains and crusty debris collects on the skin and fur around the eyes because tears collect and pool between the eye and the skin lining the eye socket—known as the conjunctiva—from time to time."

close-up portrait of a Shih-Tzu dog
Natalie Watson / EyeEm / Getty Images

Some breeds of dogs, like the Maltese and Shih Tzus, tend to be more prone to getting tear stains because of their physiology: short noses and nasal drainage canals that are narrow or completely closed, which can slow down or even prevent the natural dissipation of tears. "Tears naturally contain a molecule known as porphyrin. It's reddish-brown in color because it contains iron, and it's also present in saliva," says Dr. Long. "Porphyrin is natural and normal, but in white dogs fur staining from tears can be quite prominent."

While tear stains are not always a cause for concern, they can be the sign of an underlying medical problem. Dr. Long recommends taking your dog to the veterinarian if you are cleaning around your dog's eyes more than once or twice a week. Eyelashes could be growing in abnormal spots and causing irritation or infection, or your pup could have an allergy or an eye infection that's causing yellow or green discharge.

Another potential medical issue is dry eye. "[Dry eye] results in a sticky, yellow discharge that collects on the surface of the eye," explains Dr. Long. "All of these conditions need specific treatments to stop or at least reduce eye discharge."

Cleaning around your dog's eyes requires a gentle touch. The eye area is very delicate, so you do not want to be harsh at all. Dr. Long says that you can use a warm and damp washcloth. Hold it gently against the debris, then carefully wipe it away once it has softened. (If you've ever removed hard eye gunk from around your eyes, you know how painful it can be to wipe away hard debris from the eye area.) The warm washcloth helps to soften the eye debris so that it can be gently removed.

Should you use tear stain oral supplements? While these are typically safe to give to your dog, they are not always very effective. Dr. Long says that you should "make sure your dog's tearing problem isn't excessive or due to a treatable problem." Treat the underlying condition that is causing the tear stains at the direction of your veterinarian.

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