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Hot Spots in Dogs

Veterinarian Reviewed on December 22, 2011 by Dr. Janice Huntingford

Summer is a common time of year for dogs to develop hot spots. Also known as moist dermatitis or pyotraumatic dermatitis, these are areas of the skin that are oozing, red, damp, and smelly. They usually occur in circular patterns. Common areas of the body on which they develop are the rump and behind the ears, but they can appear anywhere. Hot spots are especially common in dogs with thick coats and in warm, humid climates.

What Are Canine Hot Spots?

A hot spot is an area of infection on a dog’s skin. Bacteria are always present on the skin in its natural and normal state. However, if a part of the skin is injured or traumatized, these bacteria can over-run the immune defenses and result in an infection. The initial trauma, in the case of hot spots, is often caused by the dog himself chewing, licking, and scratching at the area.

Redness, dampness, and increased attention to the area by the dog are usually the first signs of the development of a hot spot. Owners may not be able to see the skin problem initially because of hair cover. As the condition develops and infection sets in, pus and fluid will begin to seep from the affected area. This leads to the formation of a crust and the hair begins to fall out. At this point, the dog will usually react with pain if the hot spot is touched.

Causes of Hot Spots in Dogs

A hot spot is always caused by some underlying condition that incites the licking, chewing, and scratching in the first place. The most common causes for hot spots are:

  • Flea bites
  • Fly bites
  • Tick bites
  • Ear infection
  • Matted hair
  • Wounds, such as scrapes
  • Contact allergy
  • Food allergy
  • Inhalant allergy
  • Overload of staph bacteria, especially in the case of thick-coated dogs that swim
  • Fungal infection
  • Pain, especially joint or muscle soreness

Treatment of Canine Hot Spots

The first step in treating a hot spot is to shave the fur away from the affected area and clean it with a gentle cleanser. The fur must be clipped beyond the affected skin.  This will often extend far beyond the area that appears to be affected while the fur is present. Owners are sometimes shocked at the amount of fur that is trimmed from their hot spot-suffering dog, but the area needs to be exposed to the air and the skin needs to be cleaned. If the dog’s hot spot is especially painful or the infection is deep and requires removal of dead tissue, this procedure may need to be done under anesthesia.

Depending on how deep the infection goes and how widespread it is, your dog may need treatment with topical or oral antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, pain medications, or steroids.

One of the most important components in the treatment of canine hot spots is to keep the dog from continuing to traumatize the area with his tongue, teeth, or nails so that it has a chance to heal. The reason for this is that hot spots often become a vicious cycle: something causes the dog to lick, bite, and scratch himself; an infection develops, causing the tissue in the area to be painful and irritated.The irritation and pain causes the dog to lick or scratch the area more, and the cycle goes on. At this point, even if the original cause is long gone, the dog may continue to traumatize the area. The following physical barriers may be employed to keep your dog away from his hot spot:

  • An E-collar: These are large cone-shaped collars that extend past the dog’s nose, preventing him from being able to reach his hot spot.
  • A breathable T-shirt: A T-shirt may keep your dog away from his hot spot, but it needs to be a light and breathable fabric so it doesn’t trap in additional moisture.
  • A sock: A hot spot on a limb may be protected by a light sock, but it needs to be changed often and monitored so it does not trap more moisture in the area.

Deep hot spots that have dead surface tissue are being treated more with laser therapy, which speeds up healing tremendously.

Home Treatment of Hot Spots in Dogs

Hot spots can be very  painful. You may wish to take your dog to a veterinarian for treatment, especially if your dog becomes agitated or even aggressive when you attempt to help. Some dogs may require restraint to prevent self-injury or injury to others.However, if it is a small spot and you wish to attempt to treat it at home, you can try the following steps:

  • Clip the hair away from the sore. Use clippers, as you could easily cut your dog’s skin with scissors.
  • Clean the area with a medicated soap, then rinse and dry it well.
  • Treat the hot spot topically with witch hazel, which is non-toxic to dogs and works well to dry the area.
  • Pure aloe juice can be helpful in soothing the soreness of the hot spot, as can compresses made with chamomile or black tea bags.
  • Try a herbal ointment such as Pet Wellbeing’s Itchy Owie, formulated by a holistic veterinarian to relieve itching and support healing of the skin.
  • You must also protect the spot from being scratched or chewed again, as described above.

If your dog’s hot spot is only superficial, performing these steps will allow it to heal. If the area does not look better within 24 hours,  your dog should see your veterinarian.

Preventing Canine Hot Spots

Future flare-ups can be avoided by identifying the underlying cause. This may involve using flea and tick prevention on your dog. An effective and natural flea and tick repellent is Pooch Protect by Pet Wellbeing. It is available in both a spray and biodegradable wipes. Rinse and dry your dog well after swimming; identify and treat food, environmental or inhalant allergies, or do your best to treat chronic joint pain. Regular bathing and grooming can also help decrease or eliminate the frequency of hot spots, especially in dogs that swim. Dogs with  allergies  may need some form of medication, short-term or periodically. Conventional approaches may include things like antihistamines, steroids, Atopica, or Apoquel. Topical cortisone sprays or creams may also be helpful.

Alternative Therapies

Natural therapies for hot spots include acupuncture, herbal formulations or herbal topical ointments, and natural diets. Omega-3 fatty acids can help by acting as a natural anti-inflammatory.

Read also: Fleas, Fleas, Fleas

Our Expert

Dr. Janice Huntingford
Janice Huntingford, DVM, has been in veterinary practice for 28 years and has founded two veterinary clinics since receiving her Doctor of Veterinary Medicine at the Ontario Veterinary College, University of Guelph. She has studied extensively in both conventional and holistic modalities. Ask Dr. Jan

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