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Epiphora in Dogs: Causes, Signs & Treatments (Vet Answer)

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By Dr. Iulia Mihai

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Dr. Iulia Mihai

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Normally, your dog’s eyes have a thin film of tears that has the role of lubricating and protecting them. The excess tears drain into the nasolacrimal ducts, located in the inner corner of the eye, near the nose.

Epiphora is the medical term used for excessively watery eyes or the overflow of tears down the face. It is a clinical sign that can indicate a variety of underlying medical conditions that vary in severity. It is also commonly seen in small breeds with short noses and protruding eyes or long fur around the eyes, such as Shi-tzu, Pekingese, and Maltese.

If your dog’s eye or eyes have just started to water especially if they seem painful, squinting, or holding their eyes shut, you should seek urgent veterinary care.

In this article, learn about epiphora in dogs, the signs to look for, how vets treat it, and what you can do to help your four-legged friend.

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What Is Epiphora in Dogs?

Tears keep the eye healthy and are needed to protect and oxygenate the eye, but epiphora is the term for excessively watery eyes or tears overflowing down the face.

Epiphora can be broadly classified into two main subcategories: those of insufficient drainage of tears, and those of excessive production of tears. These can include blockage of the tear duct (nasolacrimal duct), corneal ulcers, abnormally placed eyelashes, and inflammation of the eye-uveitis or glaucoma.

In a normal situation, tears are produced by the tear glands, spread over the eye during blinking, and then drain away via the tear ducts to the nose. Overproduction of tears or blockage of the tear ducts can result in tears flowing out and over the face instead.

In the short-faced breeds, the apparent epiphora often has more to do with face shape. The eye sockets (orbits) are shallow and this encourages the flow of tears out and over the lower eyelids rather than down the normal drainage system.

close up of a labrador dog face
Image Credit: Aekkachai Boontawong, Shutterstock

What Are the Signs of Epiphora in Dogs?

Epiphora is a sign of an underlying condition and not a disease in itself, it is a descriptive term. Therefore the signs that can be seen are excessively watery eyes, tears running down the face, sometimes a watery/dripping nose, and, on white-furred breeds, often reddish-brown staining (tear staining). The eye discharge in epiphora is clear normal tears, no mucus or green/yellow color.

You may also be able to see signs of the underlying condition such as:
  • Red or inflamed conjunctiva (the eye membranes)
  • The inflamed or red sclera (the white of the eye)
  • Pain (squinting or holding the eyes shut)
  • Pawing at the face
  • Scratching the face on the floor
  • Obvious foreign body (sand, splinter, glass, grass seed)
  • Swollen eyelids
  • Avoiding bright light
  • Reddish-brown staining of the fur beneath the eyes

Any change from the normal appearance of your dog’s eyes should be taken seriously, eyes are precious and easily damaged. Contact your veterinary clinic for advice and to book an examination.

What Are the Causes of Epiphora in Dogs?

There are two main underlying causes of epiphora in dogs: excessive production of tears or obstruction of the tear duct. It is not likely that you will be able to tell the difference between these at home. An examination by a veterinarian or veterinary ophthalmologist using equipment such as an ophthalmoscope is required.

Excessive Production of Tears

The excessive production of tears can have several causes of its own, such as:
  • Conjunctivitis
  • Foreign body in the eye
  • Allergies
  • Entropion or ectropion (malformations of the eyelids)
  • Blepharitis (inflammation of the eyelid)
  • Corneal ulcer
  • Uveitis (inflammation within the eye)
  • Glaucoma (increased pressure in the eye)
  • Ectopic cilia (abnormally positioned eyelashes)
  • Smoke irritation

The causes of excessive production of tears are usually painful or at the least cause great irritation, they affect your dog’s quality of life and can seriously impact vision. For this reason, it is recommended to take your pet to the vet when you first notice signs.

dog pink third eyelid, conjunctivitis
Image Credit: WANALEELAND, Shutterstock

Obstruction of the Tear Duct

In healthy dogs, the normal tear secretion is drained through the tear ducts that are at the inner corner of the eye. When the tear ducts are partially or obstructed, epiphora will occur, and the tears will run down your dog’s face, staining the area around the eyes because they have nowhere else to drain.

Causes include:
  • Dacryocystitis (inflammation of the tear sac or duct)
  • Previous inflammation and consequent scarring
  • Failure to develop properly
  • Foreign objects
  • Tumors

Brachycephalic Dogs

In brachycephalic dogs (those with flattened muzzles) like Boxers, Bulldogs, and Pugs, epiphora is often due to the specific conformation (shape) of their head, depth of eye sockets, and extra soft tissue which can all impact the normal flow of tears. Chronic overflow of tears will usually change the color of the fur where they run down, with light-colored fur, especially white, showing this the most. Once you have confirmed this is the only problem with your vet then there is no need for specific treatment. However, to help reduce this tear-staining appearance and the possible infections that may occur, it is recommended to clean their eyes frequently with special products (pet wipes, eye drops).

crying pug
Image Credit: Chonlawut, Shutterstock

What Is the Treatment for Epiphora in Dogs?

The treatment of epiphora will be based on treating the cause that led to its occurrence. For example, if your dog has a corneal ulcer then treatment of this will be required.

Your veterinarian will perform a thorough general and ophthalmological exam. This may involve the use of an ophthalmoscope, a tonometer (to check eye pressure), and fluorescein dye (to check for ulcers and tear drainage).  Sometimes eye swabs will be needed or even a referral to an eye specialist.

Treatments vary from medicated eye drops to surgical correction of abnormal eyelids. It is important to follow the instructions and treatment regimen that your veterinarian prescribes. If you have difficulty applying the eye drops then ask if they can help. If your dog is rubbing their face, they may need to wear an E-collar/buster collar to help protect the eyes.

It is also important that if the condition seems to change for the worse at any time you return to your veterinarian for a follow-up examination.

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Can Epiphora Go Away on Its Own?

Epiphora can resolve on its own if it is caused by a temporary mild irritation such as dust in the eye or wind blowing in the face. To help your dog, you can clean their eyes with cooled boiled water and/or pet wipes and trim the hair around the eyes regularly.

If the epiphora persists especially if combined with other signs (red eyes, pawing at the face, excessive scratching, swollen eyelids, any signs of pain) take them to the vet.

owner cleaning eyes of the dog using wipes
Image Credit: Marina.Martinez, Shutterstock

Do Dogs’ Eyes Water When They Are Sick?

In some situations, yes, dogs’ eyes can be watery when they are sick. Watery eyes can appear in dogs that have a respiratory infection such as Kennel Cough, their signs being similar to those of a human cold. Dogs may have nasal secretions, a cough, sneezing, watery eyes, and lethargy. It is recommended to contact your veterinarian if you suspect your dog is sick in any way.

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Conclusion

Epiphora is a descriptive term and is caused by various eye conditions. These include corneal ulcers, eyelid abnormalities, foreign bodies in the eye, infections, and inflammation of the eye. The causes of epiphora have two major subcategories: when the tear duct is obstructed or when there is an excessive production of tears. In a slightly different situation, epiphora can also occur in short-snouted dogs due to their head shape. The treatment of epiphora will be to treat the underlying cause.


Featured Image Credit: GoodFocused, Shutterstock

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