All About Hot Spots On Dogs

Excessive licking, chewing and scratching are some signs of hot spots on dogs. Learn how to prevent this itchy condition.

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An irritation or itch can be the beginning of a painful hot spot for a dog. SpeedPhoto/iStock/Thinkstock
Dr. Jerry Murray

A hot spot is a general term for a very itchy skin infection. They are also called acute moist dermatitis and pyotraumatic dermatitis, and they are a very common problem for dogs. Any breed can get a hot spot, but dogs with fleas or a history of allergies are more prone to developing a hot spot. Dogs with thick coats, like Chow Chows and Golden Retrievers, also seem to be more prone to hot spots.

The Painful Itch Of Hot Spots

Clinical signs that I typically see with hot spots are hair loss or hair being matted to the skin, the skin being very red in color from inflammation, and fluid oozing from the skin infection. The matted hair can hide the hot spot and make it difficult to see just how bad it really is. These spots are typically hot to the touch from the localized inflammation and infection. They are usually very itchy, which will cause your dog to lick, chew and scratch at the spot relentlessly. Your dog can rapidly make the problem a lot worse with the nonstop licking, scratching and chewing. Hot spots can also be painful to your dog.

Causes Of Dog Hot Spots

Just about anything that makes a dog itchy can cause a hot spot. Common causes include parasites, allergies, infections and warm and humid weather.

1. Pesky Bugs: In my experience, fleas are the most common problem, but other parasites can cause irritation as well, including mites (demodectic, sarcoptic or ear mites), mosquitoes, flies and even ants.

2. Sensitivities: Allergies are the second most common cause of hot spots. Allergies can include seasonal allergies to pollen from grass, trees, weeds, fungus and dust mites. Food allergies to the protein source in the diet and allergies to fleabites can also cause hot spots. Allergies typically cause people to have a runny nose, runny eyes and to sneeze a lot. In dogs, however, allergies can cause an intense itchiness to the skin. Some dogs are actually allergic to flea saliva, so just a few fleabites can cause them to be extremely itchy.

3. Miscellaneous Health Issues: Hot spots can sometimes be related to an infection such as an ear infection. The ear infection is itchy, so your dog will scratch at the ear and at some of the skin below it. The self-trauma from scratching can lead to a hot spot right below the ear. Some hot spots are related to a painful condition like hip arthritis. This could cause your dog to lick and chew at the skin above the hips. The licking and chewing could lead to a hot spot developing above the hips.

I see more hot spots in the spring, summer and fall months. This is also the bug and allergy season, and when the weather is warm and humid.

Diagnosing Dog Hot Spots

It is usually easy for a veterinarian to diagnose a hot spot. Most hot spots can be diagnosed with just a physical exam. The typical inflamed and infected skin lesions are easy to recognize. Identifying the underlying cause of the hot spot, however, can be more challenging for your veterinarian. It is important to determine the cause of the hot spot, so appropriate action can be taken to prevent more hot spots in the future.

Treatment For Dog Hot Spots

Treating a hot spot normally requires several steps. Below are general treatment guidelines I use, but each dog is different. Consult your veterinarian for advice about the best treatment method for your dog.

First, I shave off the matted fur. In cases that are painful, a mild sedation may be needed. Shaving the lesion allows me to see how big of an area of skin is involved and how deep the skin infection is. It will also help the skin to heal faster. I then clean the skin lesion with a surgical scrub such as chlorhexidine, which is mild on the skin.

The second step is to stop the itch. This is usually done by using cortisone tablets for a week or two. Unfortunately, cortisone has some unwanted side effects, which include drinking a lot of water and urinating a lot. A newer option is to use Apoquel to stop the itch. Apoquel will rapidly get the itch under control without those unwanted side effects. Your veterinarian can advise you which method is best for your dog.

The third step is to treat the skin infection. For most small hot spots this can be done with a topical ointment like Neosporin. For larger lesions or deeper skin infections, an oral antibiotic like cephalexin or Simplicef may be needed. For dogs who are difficult to give oral medications to, an antibiotic injection may be used. Convenia is a long-acting injection that provides two week’s worth of antibiotic treatment. It is especially nice for small breed dogs who are difficult to medicate.

Finally, I like to use an Elizabethan collar to prevent the dog from licking or chewing at the hot spot.

These steps clear up most hot spots, but you also have to treat the underlying problem that created the itch and caused the hot spot to develop in the first place.

Preventing Dog Hot Spots

In my experience, fleas are the most common problem that starts a hot spot, so strict flea control is a must. Fortunately, many different types of flea control are now available. Consult your veterinarian to determine whether a topical, oral or collar preventive will work best for your dog. In more severe flea infestations, spraying the yard and the house may also be needed.

In general, hot spots are not contagious, but fleas and some mites can be spread from one dog to another. This makes it important to treat all pets in the house with a flea control medication. Some of the newer prescription flea products can control mites, too.

Allergies are the second most common cause of hot spots. There are three different medications (cortisone, Apoquel and cyclosporine) that can be used to control allergies. In addition, your veterinarian can refer you to a veterinary dermatologist for allergy skin testing and immunotherapy (allergy shots) to control the allergies.

Keeping the fleas and allergies under control will usually prevent the recurrence of a hot spot. Frequent grooming and bathing will also help; however, if you notice any problem with the skin on your dog or if your dog is frequently licking and chewing at the skin, then it is time for a vet visit before your dog’s skin problem becomes worse.

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Dogs · Health and Care