Hot Spots on Dogs

Dog scratching fleas

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If you notice your dog has an itchy, painful area in its coat, it might just have a hot spot. These inflamed patches can grow rapidly in one day and should be treated as soon as possible to prevent further infection and discomfort.

What Are Hot Spots?

A hot spot is a localized area of skin inflammation and infection that occurs on a dog. The infection can be superficial or deep and occur anywhere on the body, but these spots are most common on the head, hip, or chest area. Other common names for this condition include moist dermatitis and acute moist dermatitis. Also known as "pyotraumatic dermatitis," these common skin lesions are usually caused, and made worse, by the dog biting, licking, or scratching at the skin.

Signs of Hot Spots in Dogs

Redness, oozing, pain, and itchiness are hallmark signs of a hot spot. Hair loss is commonly present. Sometimes hair can mat over the lesion, obscuring the size and degree of the problem. These lesions can appear suddenly and grow rapidly within hours because a dog may continue to lick, scratch, or chew the affected area.

It is common for an owner to notice a small area of inflamed skin in the morning (perhaps an inch or couple centimeters in diameter) and come home from work to be met with a large area the size of the palm of a hand. The dog is usually highly agitated and will not leave the area alone. Some dogs will even growl or snap if the area is touched.

Causes of Hot Spots

There is usually an inciting factor to initiate extreme licking and scratching behavior.

  • Look for fleas, mites, other external parasites, an insect sting or bite, allergies (food, inhalant, contact), or injury (skin wound, scrape, etc.).
  • Some animals have been known to "start" a hot spot out of boredom or stress-related psychological problems.
  • Dogs that are infrequently groomed or have very matted fur are also prone to hot spots. It is more common for long-haired and thick-coated breeds to develop hot spots, although it can happen to any breed of dog.
flea in a dog's fur
 George D. Lepp / Getty Images

Treatment

The first thing to do is to speak with your veterinarian. Due to how quickly hot spots grow and spread and the possibility of a deeper skin infection, it is wise to start treatment with your vet. There are some steps to take at home, but follow the advice of your veterinarian first. Caution is advised because hot spots are often very painful and your dog may not appreciate being touched. Use a muzzle if need be, for your protection.

The first treatment for hot spots is to dry them out and get air to the area. Hair loss is a feature of hot spots, but hair can also mat over the inflamed area, covering up a potentially much more severe and large problem. Your vet will likely shave the area as the first step toward healing but this is rarely recommended as an at-home treatment step. Cleanse the area with cool water and a gentle skin cleanser. Cool compress the area two to four times a day with a cool wet washcloth.

Depending on the severity and size of the hot spot, your veterinarian may prescribe oral antibiotics, topical drying sprays or medications, or special shampoos. Your vet will also recommend preventing the dog from licking, biting, and scratching of the exposed area. This is especially important if medications have been applied to the hot spot. You may find an Elizabethan collar (E-Collar) or something similar is helpful until the hot spot heals.

At-Home Remedies

While you wait for your appointment, some of these remedies may work to alleviate discomfort. It's best to check with your vet about these treatments prior to administering them:

  1. Try a safe topical spray such as Vetericyn, which promotes quick healing, does not sting, and is completely safe if ingested if your dog continues to lick the affected area.
  2. Tea bag compresses (black or green tea) can help dry the area out. Tea can be used as a wash or as a compress.
  3. Domeboro's (Burow's) solution is made of aluminum acetate and is available over-the-counter at pharmacies. This will help dry the skin out and it can be used as a compress or as a spray.
  4. Some people advocate using a thin film of over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. Talk to your vet first before using this. In general, creams and ointments only serve to "gunk up" the area and prevent proper drying if used incorrectly. Also, if the pet licks it, you want to make sure that it isn't toxic.

How to Prevent Hot Spots

Hot spots are not entirely preventable. There are a number of grooming recommendations you can follow to help your dog avoid hot spots, including:

  • Regular grooming
  • Shaving or clipping of long coats, especially in the summer months
  • A strict flea control regimen
  • A stress-free environment
  • Toys, exercise, and play to avoid boredom
If you suspect your pet is sick, call your vet immediately. For health-related questions, always consult your veterinarian, as they have examined your pet, know the pet's health history, and can make the best recommendations for your pet.