by Elizabeth Racine, DVM
Hot spots are one of the most common skin conditions in dogs, particularly in the summer months. These painful, oozing sores can appear seemingly out of nowhere and often spread rapidly. While hot spots are frustrating to deal with, they can be treated and even prevented with the right management.
What Are Hot Spots?
Also known as acute moist dermatitis, hot spots are localized areas of skin inflammation and bacterial infection. Often a hot spot will begin as a small red area that owners may mistake for an insect bite. Unlike an insect bite, a hot spot will rapidly worsen and spread, developing into a hot, red, oozing, and painful lesion.
What Causes Hot Spots?
Hot spots are often triggered by scratching, licking, or chewing the affected area. The resulting trauma to the skin causes inflammation and secondary bacterial infections. Unfortunately, this self-trauma only makes the area more itchy, which causes a self-perpetuating cycle of itching and scratching. Thus, any condition that causes your dog to feel itchy has the potential to result in a hot spot.
Common causes of the itching/scratching cycle in dogs include:
Flea allergy dermatitis
Ear or skin infections
Anal sac disease
Stress or boredom resulting in excessive licking
Coat that is dirty or matted
Moisture trapped in the coat from swimming or bathing
Many of these conditions are chronic problems that can lead to recurring hot spots if they are not appropriately managed. Identifying and addressing the underlying cause for your dog’s hot spot is one of the most important factors in preventing future skin problems.
Some breeds such as Golden Retrievers, St. Bernards, German Shepherd Dogs, Labrador Retrievers, and Rottweilers are predisposed to developing hot spots due to their thicker coats. Hot spots are also more likely to occur during warm weather and periods of high humidity. Dogs that are frequently wet from swimming, bathing, or inclement weather are more prone to developing hot spots due to the excess moisture held against the skin by their coats.
Symptoms of Hot Spots
Many skin conditions have similar symptoms, so it is important to consult your veterinarian if you are concerned about your dog. Hot spots are typically well-defined areas of redness, swelling, and hair loss. They can occur anywhere, but are most commonly seen on the head, limbs, and hips. The affected area is moist and may discharge pus or fluid, which can lead to crusting and matting of the surrounding hair. Hot spots are painful and very itchy, and will rapidly grow as the dog’s scratching continues to traumatize the area.
Treatment for Hot Spots
If you suspect your dog may have a hot spot, the first step is a visit to your veterinarian. While it may be tempting to wait for the hot spot to resolve on its own, delaying treatment will only make the problem worse. In order to treat the hot spot effectively and prevent it from recurring, your veterinarian will need to determine the underlying cause. They will perform a full physical examination on your dog, and may recommend additional testing such as a skin scrape to look for parasites. Once the underlying cause of your dog’s itching has been diagnosed, your veterinarian will prescribe appropriate treatment.
Treatment of hot spots typically involves some combination of the following:
Clipping the hair around the area to prevent matting.
Cleaning the affected area with gentle antiseptic solutions such as chlorhexidine.
Bathing with a chlorhexidine shampoo for dogs.
Prescribing topical or oral antibiotics to treat secondary bacterial infections.
Prescribing topical or oral steroids to control inflammation and decrease itching.
Prescribing allergy medications that stop the underlying cause of itching.
Using medicated wipes or solutions to gently clean the area daily.
Applying an Elizabethan collar (e-collar or “cone”) to prevent continued scratching.
Fortunately, once your veterinarian has initiated treatment for the hot spot, most dogs improve rapidly. In many cases, the hot spot resolves in as little as 3–7 days after the start of treatment.
Preventing Hot Spots
The best way to prevent additional hot spots from occurring is to identify and address the underlying cause of your dog’s itching. Good parasite prevention, treatment of skin infections, and management of allergies are essential to stop scratching and prevent trauma to the skin. Good hygiene and routine grooming can also help. For dogs that swim or bathe frequently, it is also important to ensure their coats are thoroughly dried after these activities.
If your dog is licking due to stress or boredom, increasing daily exercise and active play time can alleviate this problem. Using environmental enrichment such as puzzle toys or slow feed bowls is a great way to keep dogs mentally stimulated, even if you can’t be there to play with them. Your dog will love the additional activity and will be healthier too.
Supplementing fatty acids is another option to prevent and manage skin disease. Omega-3 fatty acids DHA and EPA are found in fish oil. These fatty acids not only have anti-inflammatory properties, but also help promote a healthy skin barrier, making your dog less susceptible to allergens and infection. Topical aloe vera may also help soothe damaged skin and decrease itching, but it is important to ensure your dog does not ingest the aloe, which can result in vomiting and diarrhea.
Hot spots are an itchy and painful problem for your dog, and may become a recurring issue if the underlying condition is not addressed. Fortunately, with good management, your dog’s hot spot will resolve quickly and will not result in any permanent damage.