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Seeing Red:
Staining of the Eyes

I have a client who owns a white chihuahua, a small and sweet dog who lacks the characteristic attitude the breed is known for (he just wanted cuddles). Everything about him looked good, his nails were well maintained, his ears were clean and his skin was in great shape, his owner brought him in regularly to both the groomer and the vet to ensure he was always in tiptop shape. So when she told me that she was recently very worried about his eyes, and even made a vet appointment to have them looked at, I became concerned, too. What could have happened? He has large eyes, perhaps an injury? To make a long story short, nothing was wrong. She was alarmed by a stranger who asked “What is wrong with your little dog’s eyes, that looks painful!”. What the stranger was referring to was the red and brown staining that he has between and under his eyes. Something her vet confidently assured her was not a medical issue but rather a cosmetic one. Simply called “tear staining”, it is just pigment and is not painful. We had grown accustomed to his sweet face, stain and all, but to the stranger the red color was bizarre and foreign. After that experience, my client worried about what other people might think of her and how she cared for her dog when they saw him. She had to find a way to address the color, but in a way that was gentle enough for the sensitive area around the eyes. 

So many people experience some form of concern over their light colored dog’s tear staining that there are now multiple over the counter formulations designed to ‘fix’ the streaks, the trouble is the approach these products take might not address the cause of the pigmentation, making them ineffective.


IMPORTANT: If your dog has extreme staining around the eyes, or if you are concerned about your dog’s wellbeing in any way, consult with a veterinarian to rule out any health issues before following the advice in this, or any other article. This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition, but rather to demystify the non-medical tear staining issue.                                                   



There are several possible causes for tear staining. The most common being porphyrins, the technical name for the molecules produced by the body as it breaks down iron, they are also a component of the red blood cell . Porphyrins are excreted through the GI tract, urine, saliva and tears. Most dogs with tear staining also show signs of staining at the lips, under the tail and at any frequently licked spot. Some dogs produce more porphyrins than others and lighter colored dogs show the pigment more than darker colored dogs. 

Another common cause is the food coloring added to the food we feed. There is no nutritional benefit to artificial colorants, and the body is unable to process them so they are excreted the same way as the porphyrins. Even natural colorants and ingredients can cause staining. Some common dog food ingredients that can cause staining are: tomatoes, cranberries, beets and any ‘red’ food that might be in there. As well as any color titled ingredient such as Red-40.

Excessive tears can increase staining as a constantly moist environment can breed bacteria, yeast and fungus which, when combined with the salty nature of the tears themselves (which opens the hair follicle and holds the pH level at about 5.5) allows the pigment to get deep into the hair itself, and not just stain the surface. 


Addressing the Stain:

The solution to the problem is multifaceted, you can choose how you would like to start to tackle the stain, one small change at a time or combine all your choices for greater effect.

  1. Hygiene: First, it is important to note that the fur that holds the stain may have to grow out and be replaced with a fresh unstained strand. This can take a couple of weeks, but you will see improvement as the old stained strands fall out and are replaced. Properly cleansing, conditioning and protecting the area is key to preventing the new fur from acquiring staining. A gentle, breed appropriate shampoo, followed by an appropriate conditioner, once a week will keep the area clean. Applying a pure, natural silicone the the fur that tends to stain every 4-5 days will seal the coat, preventing the staining substances from sinking deep. It is not necessary to bathe your entire dog, just the face. All of these products, and “How To” consultations are available at Give a Dog a Bath in North Adams, MA.


  1.  Diet: “One of the most important factors to prevent staining is a fresh, well balanced diet high in moisture content, and quality proteins. It is important it has minimal carbohydrates, fillers, additives and preservatives and preferably does not contain red meats since red meat contains high levels of iron and the breakdown of iron produces the stain creating porphyrins. (This includes treats, and stolen goodies!) Also, the nature of carbohydrates increases inflammation and irritation in our pups and in turn, may cause or worsen tear staining. In addition, Omega 3 fatty acids help with inflammation and should be added to your pups diet as a regime for good overall health.”


-Sharon DiGirolamo, Certified Pet Food Nutritionist. Sharon is the owner and operator of Kaya’s D.O.G. Bites “The Mission is Dog Nutrition” Consultations and High Nutrition Goodies, made to order with human grade, organic and locally sourced ingredients.

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