Hot spots are among the most common types of skin problems in dogs. These angry red skin lesions typically occur when a dog excessively licks, chews, and scratches at an itchy or painful spot on its skin, leading to a reddened, raw, and often oozing sore. Hot spots can develop quickly, but luckily early detection and proper treatment can prevent hot spots from becoming more serious.
Although any dog can develop a hot spot, the painful sores are most common on dogs that have thick coats or like to swim or play in water. They are also somewhat more common on certain dog breeds, including German shepherds, rottweilers, Labradors and golden retrievers, and Saint Bernards. Dogs of any age can get hot spots.
What Is a Hot Spot?
A hot spot describes a localized skin infection. Technically called acute moist dermatitis or pyotraumatic dermatitis, hot spots are usually caused by scratching and chewing the skin due to itching or pain, which can have many causes. The self-trauma leads to a painful patch of red, swollen skin that may be oozing with discharge and matted with hair. Because the hot spot itself hurts and itches, the dog continues to lick and scratch, furthering the problem and preventing healing.
Hot spots tend to develop very quickly and often become infected with bacteria. You might notice a small red spot on your dog's skin in the morning, only to find a large, inflamed, and possibly oozing or bleeding sore by the end of the day. And while hot spots can occur on any part of a dog's body, they are most common on the head, hips, and legs.
Symptoms of Hot Spots in Dogs
Hot spots usually start out small, and it can be difficult to spot the sore if it's underneath your dog's fur, especially if the fur is thick. Once the hot spot enlarges, however, you are likelier to see the telltale inflammation, redness, and bleeding or oozing.
A hot spot often first appears as an area of matted fur or a patch of hair loss with red, irritated skin underneath. Typically, hot spots have a clearly defined border. The skin may have a shiny or scabby appearance and is usually painful to the touch. Most hot spots are moist and may leak a clear or opaque discharge, but severely inflamed or infected spots may bleed. Large, infected hot spots may also have a bad smell.
Most owners notice over-grooming, scratching, licking, and chewing of the skin before the hot spot appears. Dogs typically continue to lick the hot spot due to itching or pain, causing further trauma to the skin.
Causes of Hot Spots
Hot spots are caused by self-trauma. Excessive scratching injures the skin, making it more susceptible to infection. Continued licking keeps the area moist, making it an optimum environment for bacteria to thrive and multiply. The hair may become matted over the skin, trapping in moisture and further promoting infection. Eventually, the skin becomes raw and painful.
In most cases, the reason for this over-grooming is itching or pain due to a skin problem. Dogs may also lick the skin over regions of internal pain, like joints. Less commonly, over-grooming is connected to a behavioral problem.
Common underlying health issues that lead to hot spots include:
- External parasites, especially fleas
- Immune-mediated skin disease
- Generalized dermatitis
- Arthritis (causes joint pain)
- Injury to skin, joint, bone, or soft tissue
- Stress, anxiety, or fear
- Obsessive-compulsive disorder
- Moisture trapped from swimming or bathing
Dogs with long or thick hair are more likely to develop hot spots if moisture is trapped in their dense coats. These dogs should be thoroughly dried after bathing or swimming.
Diagnosing Hot Spots in Dogs
Hot spots are generally easy to identify, due to their characteristic appearance and the dog's frantic attempts to relieve the pain and itch by licking and scratching the sore spot. Your veterinarian will perform a full examination, looking for signs of underlying issues that might have led to the hot spot, including fleas, other skin diseases, injuries, or pain. Often, the vet will swab the inflamed area and look under the microscope to confirm bacteria.
Contact your veterinarian if you notice a hot spot on your dog. They can quickly become worse without treatment, leading to a deeper infection. While there are over-the-counter medications for these sores, they generally can't address the secondary bacterial infections that are common with hot spots.
Hot spots are usually painful, so your dog may resist having the area touched. Some dogs will need to be sedated for the procedure. Here are the usual steps your veterinary team will take:
- Hair is shaved from the wound with clippers, including the hair around the wound and any long hairs that can touch the wound.
- The area is cleansed with sterile saline and a mild antiseptic like chlorhexidine. The wound should be dabbed gently but not scrubbed.
- The wound is patted dry and left uncovered to air dry.
- An E-collar (cone that looks like a lampshade) or similar collar is placed on the dog to prevent licking and chewing.
Next, the veterinarian will examine the clean wound and recommend medications as needed. Further treatment will depend on the severity of the hot spot and the condition of the dog's skin. Vets often use a combination of treatments:
- Topical ointments, sprays, wipes, or creams (may contain steroids, antibiotics, soothing ingredients)
- Antibiotics (oral or injected)
- Antipruritics (anti-itch drugs, usually given orally)
- Anti-inflammatories (oral or injected)
Your vet may begin with an injectable medication and provide topicals and oral medications to continue at home. Be sure to follow your vet's advice regarding home care and follow-up. Contact your vet if the wound is not healing or your dog shows signs of illness. Be sure to talk to your vet before starting any over-the-counter treatment or home remedy.
With proper treatment, hot spots generally heal within a week or so.
Never give your pet any over-the-counter pain medication, such as aspirin, without first consulting your vet. Your veterinarian can advise you on the correct dosage, as well as any potential side effects the medication might cause.
Prognosis for Dogs With Hot Spots
As long as you seek out prompt treatment for your dog, it should recover completely from a hot spot. However, leaving the spot untreated can lead to serious infection, as well as continued pain.
How to Prevent Hot Spots
The best way to prevent hot spots on dogs is to address itching and skin inflammation as soon as it occurs. Prevent flea or tick infestations with your vet's recommended flea/tick products as these parasites can also be a cause of irritation and infection. Dry your dog thoroughly after a bath, swim, or heavy rain, as damp fur can cause skin irritation. And of course, regular baths, brushing, and grooming help keep a dog's skin healthy and free of potential irritants that could lead to a hot spot.
If your dog is prone to hot spots, or dry and itchy skin, your vet might recommend a daily fish oil supplement to provide skin-soothing omega-3 fatty acids. These supplements come in liquid or capsule form and are generally well-received by dogs.
If you see signs that your dog is in danger of developing a hot spot, such as intense licking or scratching at one particular spot on its skin, place an E-collar or similar alternative on your dog to stop the licking until your vet can provide some relief.
Hot Spots on Dogs. Small Door Veterinary.
Llera, R. & Buzhardt, L. First Aid for Hot Spots in Dogs. VCA Animal Hospitals.
Hnilica, Keith A.; Patterson, Adam P. (2016). "Chapter 3. Bacterial skin diseases. Pyotraumatic dermatitis". Small Animal Dermatology: A Color Atlas and Therapeutic Guide (4th ed.). St. Louis, Missouri: Elsevier. pp. 49–50.
Paterson, Sue. “Acute Moist Dermatitis.” Companion Animal, vol. 19, no. 7, 2014, pp. 350–353.