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Kitten With Teary Eyes

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  • Earlier this year, the FDA sent a warning letter to three U.S. manufacturers of dog and cat tearstain products containing the antibiotic tylosin tartrate. The agency warned the companies that if their products remain on the market, they may be seized or an injunction filed against them.
  • Tear staining in dogs and cats is typically caused by excessive tear production, though it can also be a sign of a serious eye-related disease. The condition is more common in certain breeds and is more obvious in pets with light-colored coats.
  • If a pet’s tearstains are dark red, they are the result of porphyrins, which are iron-containing waste products from the breakdown of red blood cells that can be excreted in tears and saliva. If the stains are brown in color, it indicates a yeast infection on the face.
  • Treating your pet’s tearstains safely and effectively starts with keeping his face scrupulously clean and his face hair trimmed.
  • Other recommendations include offering a balanced, species-appropriate diet and fresh, filtered drinking water; replacing plastic food and water bowls; and providing an appropriate supplement protocol.

The Hidden Message Behind Your Pet's Tear Stains

November 12, 2014 | 634,298 views
| Available in EspañolDisponible en Español

By Dr. Becker

In August of this year, the FDA sent a letter of warning to three manufacturers of tearstain removal products.1 The reason? They contain the antibiotic tylosin tartrate, which is not approved for use in dogs or cats, or for the treatment of tearstain-related conditions.

The companies receiving the letters included the makers of Angels’ Eyes, Angels’ Glow, Pets’ Spark, and two exported products, Glow Groom and Health Glow. One or more of these products may be familiar to you if you’ve ever had a pet with tear staining – though you may not have been aware they contain an antibiotic.

The FDA has warned that if the products remain on the market, the agency may seize them or file an injunction against the manufacturers. Tylosin tartrate is approved by the FDA for use in livestock, but not in dogs and cats except when prescribed by a veterinarian. I think this is a good move (which is not a blanket endorsement of the FDA, by the way). I can’t imagine how these over-the-counter products containing tylosin tartrate have been sold under the radar for so long, especially since it is widely acknowledged that antibiotics are overused in the U.S., and antibiotic-resistant bacteria is a serious public health concern.

The company that makes Glow Groom and Health Glow actually admitted to FDA inspectors that they do not list tylosin tartrate on the labels of their exported products to avoid detection by customs in the countries receiving them.2

Tear Staining: What Is It? What Causes It?

Tear staining is usually caused by epiphora, which is the technical word for excessive tear production. The tearstains themselves are reddish-brown streaks under a dog’s (or cat’s) eyes. The condition is much more prevalent in certain breeds (for example, the Maltese, the Lhasa Apso, and the Shih Tzu), and is much more obvious in animals with light-colored coats. While tear staining is typically no more than a minor annoyance, it can also be a symptom of a serious eye health problem.

Medical causes of tear staining can include:

Ingrown eyelashes

Infection of the eye

Unusually large tear glands

Unusually small tear duct openings

Glaucoma or another eye disease

Entropion (inverted eyelid)

Brachycephalic syndrome

Ear infection


Exposure to secondhand smoke

Poor-quality diet

Plastic food bowls


Teething in puppies

If you have a dog or cat with tear staining, I recommend talking about it with your veterinarian at your next appointment. It’s important to rule out medical causes before you assume it’s a simple matter of too much tear production.

Why Some Pets Have or Show More Tear Staining

Tearstains are typically the result of porphyrins. Porphyrins are naturally occurring molecules containing iron – waste products from the breakdown of red blood cells -- and are mostly removed from the body in the usual way (in poop). However, in dogs and cats, porphyrin can also be excreted through tears, saliva, and urine.

When tears and saliva containing porphyrins sit on light-colored fur for any period of time, staining will occur. And if it seems your pet’s tearstains are worse after he’s been outside, you’re not imagining things. The iron-containing stains do indeed darken when exposed to sunlight.

Now, if the stains are more of a brown color than rust colored, it’s likely your pet has developed a yeast infection on her face because the fur under her eyes is constantly wet with tears. Brown stains from a yeast infection are different from red staining caused by porphyrins. This can be important to know if you’re trying to resolve brown stains with a product intended for red stains, or vice versa. Yeast infections are also odiferous, so if your pet’s face smells, think yeast. Pets can also have both a porphyrin stained face and a secondary yeast infection from the constantly moist skin.

To confuse matters further, currently, we can only guess at why some dogs make more porphyrin than others (and therefore have more tear staining). We can assume genetics and innate bacterial levels are involved, because certain breeds and lineages can be more prone to staining. But I have seen excessive porphyrin production in incredibly healthy animals eating a clean diet of organic, fresh food with no environmental toxin exposure (including vaccines). And I have seen the same amount of porphyrins in very unhealthy animals that I know are eating toxic food and living in toxic environments.

How to Treat Tearstains Safely

You can do a lot to control your pet’s tear staining by keeping his face meticulously clean and free of porphyrin-containing moisture. This means gently wiping his face at least twice a day with a soft, warm, damp cloth, keeping his face hair trimmed, and if necessary, making regular appointments with a groomer.

Other suggestions:

  • Feed a high-quality, balanced, species-appropriate diet. The less unnecessary, indigestible stuff your pet’s body has to deal with, the less stress on her organs of detoxification.
  • Provide your pet with fresh, filtered drinking water instead of tap water, which is often high in mineral content or iron and other impurities, including chlorine and fluoride, which are toxic to pets.
  • Replace plastic food and water bowls with stainless steel, porcelain, or glass. Worn plastic containers can harbor bacteria that may irritate your pet’s face.
  • I have used milk thistle, dandelion, olive leaf, chlorophyll, colostrum, and probiotics successfully to decrease the amount of staining in my patients.
  • Clean your pet’s face with colloidal silver, which is completely safe around the eyes. You can buy it at any health food store, in a spray or liquid dropper. Apply a little of the colloidal silver to a cotton ball and wipe your pet’s face. Colloidal silver has antimicrobial properties and will help reduce opportunistic yeast infections and moist dermatitis that can occur in the corners of your pet’s eyes.
  • HALO makes an excellent herbal eye wash for pets. If your dog or cat is prone to excessive crusting or matting in the corners of her eyes, ask your groomer to shave the hair away so you can effectively clean the skin under the eyes. Using a dab of coconut oil on the moist “tracks” of skin where tearstains accumulate can also prevent the skin from becoming irritated and inflamed. When there is a skin infection present, my local veterinary ophthalmologist recommends using a diluted organic, tear-free baby shampoo on the skin twice a day until the infection resolves.
  • Ask your holistic veterinarian for suggestions on one or several of the all-natural tearstain removal products on the market.

Things I’ve seen suggested that I do not recommend you use to treat tearstains include: Tums, topical apple cider vinegar (oral is fine), milk of magnesia, hydrogen peroxide, makeup remover, gold bond in any form (or any powder intended for humans), or corn syrup. Additionally, never use human eye drops on pets, except for basic eye saline solution with no additives.

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