Social media is filled with photos and videos of shelter dogs that appear to be crying in their kennels while waiting to be adopted into loving homes. Can dogs cry? The answer is complicated.
While dogs in those rescue photos and videos do seem sad and seeing them – cowering, tails tucked and heads down—might make you want to burst into tears, dogs do not shed emotional tears, according to Dr. Fiona Lee, veterinarian with Habitat Veterinary Hospital in Boise, Idaho.
“Dogs do not shed tears as a clinical sign of feeling sad,” Lee says.
Do Dogs Cry Tears?
Dogs have lacrimal glands, the glands in the eyes responsible for tear production, and they do produce tears. But epiphora—the medical term for tears or excessive eye watering—is often a symptom of a medical issue, not emotion, says Lee.
A dog’s eyes may water (giving them the appearance of crying) due to decreased drainage through the tear ducts. Inflammation or pain can also trigger an increased production of tears. In other words, tears are a natural response to illness or injuries.
“Tears are the body’s natural way of cleaning the eye,” explains Lee. “Extra tears can ‘wash’ the eye free of debris, pollen, dust, and other irritants.”
Your veterinarian will take a closer look at your dog’s eyes to determine what might be causing them to water. In general, excessive tearing in only one eye could be a result of a blocked tear duct, an injury, or an irritant like dust or dirt while tearing in both eyes is often a sign of a systemic issue like an infection or allergies to pollen, dust mites or certain foods, according to Dr. Jerry Klein, chief veterinary officer for the American Kennel Club.
The facial anatomies of Pugs, Boxers, Bulldogs and other short-nosed breeds might also make these dogs appear to “cry” more often. Many of these dogs have bulbous eyes with narrowed tear ducts and increased contact with the air—meaning they’re more irritated, and simultaneously less able to drain normally. Diseases like glaucoma or physical abnormalities such as inverted eyelids (entropion) or extra eyelash hairs (distichiasis) could also bring tears to your dog’s eyes.
In addition to tear production, your dog might give you other clues that there is a medical issue, including excessive blinking, keeping eyes closed, yellow or green discharge, or pawing at their eye.
“Any problem that is apparent with a dog’s eye deserves to be seen by a veterinarian,” says Klein.
Excessive tear production can also cause tear stains. The dark reddish-brown stains are more noticeable on dogs with lighter-colored fur and can often be removed with a combination of warm water and a saline solution.
Do Dogs Cry When They Are Sad?
Since dogs do not produce tears as a sign of emotion, how do dogs cry for help? You need to rely on other cues to determine whether your dog is sad.
“What we know about canine emotions are limited because [our dogs] can’t talk to us,” Lee says. “But, absolutely, dogs are capable of feeling happy and sad and scared and hurt; usually these feelings will manifest in more subtle ways.”
What Do Dogs Do When They Are Sad?
Decreased appetite, whining and whimpering, decreased energy levels, and lack of interest in toys and other favorite things are allpossible signs that your dog is feeling sad.. But Dr. Bonnie Beaver, veterinary behaviorist and professor at Texas A&M University College of Veterinary Medicine warns that even these behavior changes may not be signs of sadness.
The problem is just as likely to be a physical issue as an emotional one, Beaver adds. A dog with an upset stomach or injured paw might exhibit similar symptoms to a dog that has an emotional response to a change in schedule or a new addition to the family.
If all possible medical causes are ruled out and dog depression is thought to be the cause of the behavior change, Beaver says your veterinarian may prescribe antidepressants. You can also try to boost their mood by taking them on a walk or a trip to the dog park, engaging in positive interactions like petting and games, and offering their favorite foods.
Even though dogs don’t physically cry or release tears when they are sad, we know that they do feel sadness, so remember to talk to your veterinarian if you notice behavior changes.
“Changes in behavior might be a sign that something in their world is not right,” Beaver says.