Hot spots are one of the most frustrating skin conditions in dogs – itchy and painful for dogs, and very concerning for dog parents! These raw, moist, and downright scary-looking skin lesions are caused by an overgrowth of bacteria on the skin that eventually leads to infection. Hot spots usually show up on the head, legs, hips, or neck, and can appear extremely quickly. It’s not unusual for someone to go to work in the morning and come home the same evening to a dog with a large, red, oozing spot on his skin that seemingly appeared out of nowhere.
Although extremely rare in cats, hot spots are quite common in dogs. Breeds with very thick coats like Golden Retrievers, Collies, German Shepherds, and St. Bernards seem to be more affected than others, since their dense hair coats make it more difficult for airflow to reach their skin. However, any dog can develop a hot spot.
The Birth Of A Hot Spot
Hot spots, also called moist dermatitis or summer sores, begin when something irritates the skin and causes it to itch. That “something” could be anything from a flea or tick bite, to a food allergy, ear infection, mange, or simply obsessive licking behavior. When the dog licks the area, it becomes damp and irritated, causing it to itch even more. As the damp fur begins to mat over the area, it traps the bacteria closely against the skin and gives it a perfect environment in which to thrive – dark, warm, and moist.
Once these bacteria take hold, they literally begin to erode the first layer of skin, causing a circular, red, angry-looking lesion with a foul odor that is extremely painful and sensitive to touch. This skin trauma causes the dog’s immune system to respond, creating even more redness, itching, and inflammation.
Hot spots can also result simply from your dog getting wet, whether from swimming, being out in the rain, even from being given a bath. They are much more likely to occur during warm and humid weather, hence the term “summer sores”.
How Do You Know If Your Dog Has A Hot Spot?
Dogs are prone to developing many different kinds of skin conditions, so it’s important to recognize a hot spot while it’s still small so you can take immediate action. Since these sores can actually double (or triple!) in size in a matter of hours, prompt treatment can mean the difference between being able to manage it at home and having to seek veterinary help.
The easiest way to tell if your dog has a hot spot is to look closely at the affected area of skin. Hot spots are usually bright red, and have an almost shiny, wet-looking appearance, like they are oozing or seeping. The hair directly over the area will be gone, and you may notice a bad odor. It may appear swollen, and/or scabby around the edges.
Since these sores are incredibly itchy, your dog will most likely be licking, biting, or chewing at the area. He or she may be reluctant to eat, acting more subdued than usual, or even be snappy since these areas are quite painful.
Below is a picture of a Golden Retriever with a good-sized hot spot:
Notice how the skin appears moist and somewhat shiny. Now contrast that with the appearance of the lick granuloma below:
Lick granulomas are also very common in dogs, and may sometimes be mistaken for a hot spot. However, lick granulomas form over a long period of time from dogs obsessively licking the same area. They have a drier, more scabby appearance, and the skin appears more thickened. Although lick granulomas should be treated as soon as possible, since they are not the result of an infection, they don’t grow as rapidly and are not as time-sensitive as hot spots.
Treating Hot Spots
Hot spots can only be successfully treated if the infection is completely wiped out. In order to do that, you need to remember these 3 rules:
It can take up to 2 weeks (or longer) for a hot spot to heal. During that time, the infected area MUST be kept clean and dry.
If the hot spot is small and hasn’t been there long, it is possible to treat it yourself at home. However, if the spot doesn’t appear to be healing, or if it continues to get bigger, call your veterinarian immediately. Your dog may need oral antibiotics or other medication to get rid of the infection.
Here’s how to treat a hot spot at home:
- GET THE HAIR OUT OF THERE. The area directly over and around the spot must be shaved down to the skin using animal clippers (not scissors!) Don’t be conservative – shave a big area beyond the sore in case it gets bigger before it starts to get smaller. This will expose it to the air so it can dry out and heal. Once you’ve shaved a spot, you can use a Sharpie pen to draw around the borders of the hot spot so you’ll be able to tell if it’s getting smaller.
- If you don’t feel comfortable shaving your dog by yourself, or if the area is so painful that clipping it at home causes pain or anxiety, seek veterinary help. The last thing you want is to make matters worse by accidentally cutting the already inflamed skin.
- Gently clean the area with a cleanser and a soft cloth or gauze pads. Chlorhexidine works great for this, as does betadine (you can find them at any drugstore). Be sure to dilute both chlorhexidine and betadine with a little purified water before applying. Do NOT use hydrogen peroxide, as it dries out the skin too much and causes further irritation, which actually prolongs healing (it also burns when applied). After cleansing, gently dry the area by patting with a clean cloth, or use a hairdryer set at cool temperature.
- Apply a hydrocortisone spray, if you have it, to help with itching. Do not use any type of antibiotic ointment or anti-itch cream on the hot spot, since you want it to dry out; ointments and creams will keep the area too moist.
- Prevent further damage by keeping your dog’s mouth away from the hot spot. This is where an e-collar or inflatable collar come into the picture. Yes, dogs dislike them (intensely), but keeping your dog from biting, licking, or scratching the area is crucial to allowing it to heal.
- Clean the area at least twice daily (more if necessary) for the first several days until the hot spot begins to dry out. This will keep any bacteria that are present in the wound from reproducing and spreading.
- Watch the area closely to make sure it’s not spreading. If it continues to get bigger, or doesn’t look like it’s healing, get to your vet. Your veterinarian can prescribe topical antibiotic and anti-itch sprays, and oral antibiotics if needed. Antihistamines can also be used to reduce inflammation.
Some vets may suggest a cortisone injection to speed up healing. Personally, I am not a fan of using steroids unless they are absolutely necessary. Steroids have a big impact on the body, and all come with side effects. If the hot spot is so severe that the skin is literally sloughing off, steroids might be warranted. But for milder cases, you can always elect to forgo the steroids and give the dog’s body a chance to heal on its own.
How To Prevent Hot Spots
Sometimes hot spots form no matter how many precautions you take. But fortunately, there are many things you can do to reduce the likelihood of your dog developing them.
- Keep your dog well-groomed, especially during warm and humid months. Matted, dirty hair traps bacteria and holds it against the skin.
- Keep your dog’s coat as dry as possible. Damp hair plus warm weather provides the perfect environment for bacteria to overgrow.
- Make sure your dog is free of fleas and ticks. Flea bites can be intensely itchy, causing your dog to chew and lick. Best to avoid anything that causes your dog to itch.
- If your dog has allergies, address the issue before it becomes a secondary skin problem. Just like humans, dogs can have allergies to certain types of foods, pollen, mold, dust, and cigarette smoke.
- Consider giving your dog essential fatty acid supplements if he or she is prone to skin conditions. Your veterinarian can give you more information.
- Keep your home as stress-free as possible by making sure your dog has lots of attention, gets regular exercise, and has plenty of toys and chew treats to stay occupied. Many dogs who develop obsessive licking behaviors do so because they are bored or stressed.
- Don’t hesitate to contact your veterinarian if your dog seems itchy or begins to repeatedly lick one particular area. Your vet can help determine the cause of the itching so you can address it before it becomes a bigger problem.
When It Comes To Hot Spots, Vigilance Pays Off
Hot spots are more than just unsightly; they can develop into a serious, overwhelming infection if not properly treated. Fortunately, once treated, hot spots usually resolve completely and don’t do any lasting damage to the skin.
Keep in mind that when hot spots first form, they’re usually covered by hair, so they aren’t as noticeable. If you see your dog obsessively licking or chewing one spot, it’s always a good idea to part the fur and take a quick look to make sure the skin beneath the hair is still intact. Then work with your veterinarian to determine the cause of the itching so you don’t wake up one day to an unwelcome hot spot!
Any hot spot horror stories you’d like to share? Please tell us about it in the comments below!