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Shea Cox
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Moist Dermatitis in Dogs—Hot Spots
Home Treatments

A recent request by a Bark reader was, “how can I treat a hot spot at home without seeing a vet?” Hopefully I can begin to answer this, but first, one must be able to “spot” a hot spot.

A hot spot is a superficial skin infection that happens when normal skin bacteria overrun the skin’s defenses as a result of damage to its surface. This damage is most often started by the dog chewing, scratching, licking and gnawing at itself. In the first stages of the formation, the skin becomes moist, red, itchy, and infected. Pus begins to ooze from the traumatized skin as infection sets in. Then, the dried pus and damaged skin surface will work to form a tightly-adhered crust, and you will likely notice hair loss over the infection site. This can be a very painful process, and frequently, dogs will show pain when the area is touched.

Dogs are their own worst enemy when it comes to hot spots, and they are generally created by their own over-zealous self-licking and chewing. They can arise surprisingly quickly: a few minutes of “work” can create an impressive area of self-inflicted trauma. The good news is that they almost always look worse than they actually are, and infection is usually superficial—often resolving with topical treatment alone.

So, what causes our dogs to begin self-chewing and licking in the first place? Good question, with a common denominator being anything that creates irritation to the skin, causing the dog to chew or scratch at the site, can cause a hot spot. Think insect bites (fleas, flies), skin allergies, excess skin-surface moisture, dogs with heavy or dense hair coats, matted hair, saliva accumulation under the fur (think of the pet that is always licking its feet), skin scrapes, or excessive humidity in the environment can all be sources for a hot spot to develop. Another interesting cause: good old-fashioned boredom.

The location of the hot spots may help your veterinarian determine the underlying cause of the problem. For example, a hot spot over the hip area could indicate flea infestation, hip arthritis, or an anal gland infection. Similarly, a hot spot near an ear could indicate an ear problem, an allergy, or a dental/nerve irritation. 

What you can do at home:

If the hot spot is small, non-painful, recognized early, and is uncomplicated, it may be possible to begin treatment at home with over-the-counter products made for this use. There are an array of topical sprays, medicated shampoos, and herbal therapies available—too expansive a list to discuss here. The important thing is to ensure that it is a pet-approved/pet-safe product and it is always a good idea to call your veterinarian and ask if your choice seems reasonable. You need to be very careful not to use human topical products as these may be toxic to pets when licked and ingested.  For example, zinc oxide can be toxic when ingested and it is a common carrier in many human skin ointments.

The basics of home hot spot treatment are:

  • If the area is small and non painful, carefully and gently clip the fur that is covering the area—this allows air and medication to reach to wound (word of caution: use approved grooming clippers, not scissors! I see many “accidental lacerations” in the ER because of this.)
  • Keep your pet from licking the area—you guessed it, get out that cone of shame.
  • Apply a warm, moist compress to the area 3 times daily for 5-10 minutes to keep the area clean, to calm the tissues, and to encourage good circulation; allow the area to fully dry before applying anything topically.
  • Use only pet safe, veterinary approved, over-the-counter treatments; as always, it is best to consult with your veterinarian prior to starting any home treatment.
  • Do not place any bandages or wraps to cover the area—you want the area to “breathe.”
  • Alleviate the itching or irritation that started the whole thing in the first place—get to the bottom of the source, otherwise you will be faced with a loosing battle.

Tips on prevention:

  • One of the things that can’t be stressed enough is appropriate flea control! Good flea control is important for any itchy pet and is the foundation of “itch prevention.”
  • In hot, humid weather, always thoroughly dry your heavy-coated dog after bathing or swimming.
  • Make sure your dog is groomed on a regular basis.
  • Keep boredom and stress at bay—provoide adequate exercise and opportunities for mental stimulation and play.
  • Introduce essential fatty acids into your pets diet to help keep a healthy coat.

When you can’t do it alone:

The bad news is that about 30% of the pets who develop hot spots actually have some other kind of skin disease such as a deeper skin infection, a bite wound or other trauma, or even immune-mediated disease. If you have any concerns whatsoever, it is best to have your veterinarian assess them.

Another time that veterinary intervention is needed is when the hot spot becomes so big and painful that it requires sedation to properly clip and clean it (can you imagine what it would feel like to have running clipper blades go over raw flesh? Ouch!). 

An additional potential concern is if a hot spot is accompanied by deeper skin infection, which would require more extensive therapy such as oral pain medications, oral anti-inflammatory medications and oral antibiotics in addition to topical treatments. The treatment your veterinarian chooses will depend on how bad the problem is, how much pain your dog is in, how long the problem has been going on, and if the problem is a recurring one. Some dogs may get one or two hot spots and then never get another one again (luck dogs!), while some may have frequent recurrences. 

Hopefully this helps take off some of the heat of hot spots, and thank you for the suggestion, Mona J!

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Veterinarian Shea Cox has enjoyed an indirect path through her professional life, initially obtaining degrees in fine arts and nursing. She later obtained her veterinary medical degree from Michigan State University in 2001 and has been practicing emergency and critical care medicine solely since that time. In 2006, she joined the ER staff at PETS Referral Center in Berkeley and cannot imagine a more rewarding and fulfilling place to spend her working hours. In her spare time, she loves to paint, wield her green thumb, cook up a storm and sail. Her days are shared with the three loves of her life: her husband Scott and their two Doberman children that curiously occupy opposite ends of the personality spectrum.

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