Kayhla, a female poodle puppy who had reddish-brown stains in the corner of each of her eyes.

When Katie-Jane brought Kayhla in to me for her vaccinations, the puppy had reddish-brown stains in the corner of each eye. Katie-Jane wondered what was causing these stains, and whether she could do anything to clear them up.

I explained that the brown marks were simply tears that were over-flowing from her eyes, and spilling down her face. Tears contain natural pigments, and when they are in continual contact with white fur, the red/brown colour develops. This can look unsightly, and owners are often very keen to find a way of solving the problem.

Tears should not normally spill down the face. Instead, they should flow through a natural drainage system that starts with two small holes at the inner corner of each eye. These holes lead to  tubes known as “naso-lacrimal ducts”, also known as “tear ducts”. These carry the tears directly from the eyes to the inside of the nose. The tears then drain to the outside through the nose, which is one of the reasons why the tip of a dog’s nose is continually wet.

If the tear ducts are blocked for any reason, the result is exactly the same as if any plumbing system is blocked. The tears that are produced in the eye back up and overflow, like a sink overflowing. The overflow nearly always happens at the inner corner of each eye..

Vets are able to assess the efficacy of the tear ducts by placing a drop of green dye into each eye. In a normal dog, the dye passes with the tears through the tear ducts, and within a few minutes, the tip of the nose changes to a bright green colour. When I put the dye into Kayhla’s eyes, there was no colour change at the tip of her nose, and the green colour could be seen spilling out around the inner corners of her eyes, following the course of the brown tear stains.

The tear ducts can become blocked for different reasons. Bacterial infections of the eye, such as conjunctivitis, can cause the accumulation of thick secretions that can block the ducts. In these cases, a course of antibiotic eye ointment can be enough to clear the blockage and solve the problem. In other cases, it is necessary to physically flush the tear ducts out, using a syringe and a fine catheter. This is like a miniature version of the high pressure hoses that drain-clearing companies use to fix blocked plumbing.

In Kayhla’s case, the blocked tear ducts had a different cause that was more difficult to fix. She is a short-nosed breed of dog, deliberately bred over many generations to have a much flatter face than her wild dog ancestors. This is very obvious if you compare her appearance to other breeds such as Collies or German Shepherds.  The shortening of the nose has had one unfortunate side effect: her tear ducts have become narrowed, twisted, and prone to blockage. It is very, very common for short nosed breeds of dogs to have tear ducts that are completely blocked from birth. It can be impossible to restore normal tear drainage, and over-spill of tears is almost normal in some breeds. The problem is not confined to the dog world – short-nosed cat breeds like Persians are also prone to blocked tear ducts with the resulting over-flow of tears.

When tear-spilling cannot be stopped, there are some steps that can be taken to limit the staining effect of the continual presence of tears on the fur of the face. You can buy commercial tear stain removing wipes on-line or in pet shops, or you can try a home made version.

I normally recommend the use of mildly salty water (1 teaspoonful of salt in a pint of boiled water) as the safest solution to clean anything, including eyes. An alternative answer which many owners use for their pets is a very weak boric acid solution (1 teaspoon boric acid powder dissolved in 1 litre warm distilled water).

A tissue or cotton-wool ball is dampened in this solution, and used to clean around the eyes once or twice daily.

On rare occasions, the continual moisture due to the tears can start to cause sore areas of skin on the face. For these cases, a course of oral tetracycline (an antibiotic) is sometimes prescribed. It is not the antibiotic effect of this drug that can help, but rather the fact that it has the effect of making fluids more “watery”. This allows liquids to pass through smaller places more easily, which can enhance the flow of tears through narrow tear ducts.

Katie-Jane has started to clean Kayhla’s face using cotton balls moistened in mildly salty water. This has become part of the daily routine, and already, the tear stains are less obvious.


  • It is very common for tears to spill down the face in short-nosed breeds
  • In animals with white fur, this often causes unsightly brown stains
  • Daily cleaning of the face is usually the easiest way of managing the problem

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Please note that I am unable to answer veterinary questions in comments. If you have questions or concerns about your pet's health it is always better to contact your vet.

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