When your dog has a "hot spot," that means it has a localized area of skin inflammation and infection, often exacerbated by the bacteria, Staphylococcus intermedius. The infection can be either superficial or deep. Other common names for this condition include moist dermatitis, pyotraumatic dermatitis, and acute moist dermatitis.
When these names are broken down, they mean: "pyo-" refers to "pus," "-traumatic" refers to the injury, in this case, it is the self-inflicted biting, licking, or scratching of a site that needs attention. "Dermatitis" refers to an inflammation of the skin. "Acute" means that it appears quickly, and "moist" means that the area has not been allowed to dry out and form the scab which is required in order for it to heal.
Hot spots can happen at any time of the year, with warmer, more humid months being more commonly associated. Hot spots are a common skin problem, but that does not mean they should be overlooked or ignored. Causes vary, and it is best to visit with your veterinarian to determine the cause and get appropriate treatment. However, there are many measures of first aid and problem management that you can perform at home.
The Cause for Hot Spots
Some dogs will "start" a hot spot due to boredom, anxiety, isolation, or other stress-related psychological problems. And yet, usually, there is an underlying physical factor causing the dog to initiate the extreme licking and scratching behavior. Look for these possible irritants on or even under the skin:
First Aid for a Hot Spot
Hot spots can appear suddenly and grow rapidly in size. It is common for an owner to notice a small area of inflamed skin (perhaps only an inch or a few centimeters in diameter) in the morning, only to be met in the evening by a large lesion area the size of the palm of your hand. The dog with a hot spot will also be highly agitated and will not leave the area alone. Some dogs will growl or snap if you try to examine the area, but close inspection must be done. Calm the dog or distract it with a treat while you sneak a peak.
Redness, oozing, pain, and itchiness are all hallmark signs of a hot spot. Hair loss is commonly present at the spot, and there may be a bad odor and warmth associated with a hot spot. Sometimes long nearby hair can mat over the lesion, obscuring the full size and degree of the problem.
These skin lesions are made worse by biting, licking, or scratching. This is the dog's way of "exposing" and "cleaning" the area the best it can. You can help it attend to the spot by providing this first aid and follow-up care.
First Aid for a Hot Spot
- Have a helper assist you to gently hold, pet and calm the dog to distract it from what you are doing in first aid. Reward it for letting you help.
- Use a cool (but not cold) and very soft gauze or sponge to wet the mat so you can brush back the hair in order to find the entire border of any and all lesions, as hot spots sometimes appear in clusters.
- Clean the area with a wet, barely warm, sterile, soft material like cotton balls, Q-tips, soft bandage, or sterile sponge. Use sterile water if available which can be warmed in a coffee cup In the microwave for a few seconds or until barely warm.
- Remove hair from the neighboring area using clippers or blunted, pet-safe scissors. The purpose here is to remove all neighboring hair that might lay down over the lesion. Infections love dark and moist places, so you'll want to expose this whole area to light and fresh air.
- Now, sterilize the surface of the wound as much as possible by killing the bacteria that are present. This is best done with sterile saline which is sterile salt water that matches body salinity of mammals like humans and dogs. This amount of salt should be sufficient to instantly kill the bacteria but not hurt the dog in any way.
- To prevent more bacteria from growing, you need a bacteria killer, but one that is safe if ingested. (Antibiotic creams will probably just get licked off, and most topical antibiotic creams are toxic when ingested.) Instead, use a steeped and cooled Black Tea bag or similar natural antiseptic.
Follow Up Care
- Do not try to apply any bandaging material on top of a hot spot to avoid creating moist and dark places. However, an ointment can be protective and cooling. The best choice is 100% coconut oil which will be soothing and also prevent infections from growing. Note: Aloe vera is very toxic to dogs when ingested.
- Watch for new spots. Bacteria can be spread by scratching, starting a hot spot in the whole new place, so examine the dog carefully every day. Repeat the first aid procedure whenever a spot is looking raw or red again.
- The dog should be feeling more relieved immediately or within a few hours of this treatment. If it is able to focus on other things, you know your first aid has helped.
- Elizabethan cones that prevent licking should be a choice of last resort as they cause additional stress.
The hot spot should look better in a few days and it will be able to heal completely within a few weeks. If the hot spot looks deep, smells rotten, or doesn't seem to be getting any better after two days, have the vet take a look.
Remember, the most important thing for successful recovery of a hot spot is finding the underlying cause. This is necessary in order to break the cycle of continued skin trauma, resulting in further infection.