When it comes to your dog, you'll do just about anything in your power to ensure their happiness and health. You stay up to date on the latest and greatest advancements in holistic wellness. You make sure they are on the best diet for their individual needs. And don't get us started on the abundance of mentally stimulating toys in their bed. Therefore, when problems arise (and they inevitably do), we understand that it can be a bit frustrating. You're doing everything you can to keep Fido healthy, so where did it go wrong?
Hot spots are a common ailment that has many pet owners scratching their heads. The painful, irritating sores can sometimes seem to appear overnight and without warning, leaving dog owners wondering what to do next.
But don’t panic, you’re certainly not alone. In this article, we'll cover all you need to know about hot spots on dogs, including what causes them, how to treat them, and ways to prevent them. We understand that you eagerly want to rid your pup of the uncomfortable sores - so let's get to it!
What is a Hotspot
Let's start with the basics.
There's no need to sugarcoat the facts. A hot spot is one of the most frustrating skin conditions that your dog can have. Medically speaking, hot spots are referred to as acute moist dermatitis, but most people simply call them hot spots. The sores develop on the surface of the dog's skin and can quickly become large, painful raw lesions. (In what seems like literally no time at all... they can appear in just a few hours!) Although hot spots can develop just about anywhere on your dog’s body, they are most commonly found on the head, neck, or hip area.
Hot spots themselves are not considered to be dangerous to your dog's health. However, the oozing, red, irritated lesions can cause Fido to experience a significant amount of pain. Furthermore, if hot spots are not resolved, and the underlying cause is not addressed, they can lead to the development of bacterial infections and irreversible skin damage.
What Causes Hot Spots on Dogs
As always, in order to prevent an ailment from occurring in the future, pet owners must recognize what has caused it to develop in the first place. Hot spots are no different.
Self-Inflicted Hot Spots
Most hot spots are self-inflicted. They occur when the dog licks, bites, and itches their skin incessantly, eventually creating traumatized tissue, raw skin, and a moist scab. In many cases, the inciting cause of the persistent licking and itching could be something as simple as an insect or flea bite. Even a single mosquito bite could cause significant agitation, which could lead to the development of a hot spot.
The frustration for pet owners and the pain and discomfort for dogs often begins during the healing process. As a scab begins to form, the itching sensation intensifies, causing the dog to bite, lick, and itch even more than before. The constant irritation of the area delays healing and can permit bacteria from the dog's mouth, paws, and other surfaces to enter the wound. Therefore, delayed healing of the wound can be complicated by the potential for serious bacterial infections. As you can see, a simple hotspot isn't so simple once it is fully developed.
Other Factors to Consider
Although in many cases, the inciting cause of the persistent licking, biting, and itching could be related to an insect bite, this is not the only possibility.
Hot spots on dogs can also be caused by the following:
- Allergic reactions
- Dry skin (often appearing as dandruff)
- Anal gland disease
- Surface scratches
- Underlying skin infections
- Excessive licking resulting from boredom, anxiety, or stress
The following conditions could also lead to similar signs:
- Scabies (a skin condition caused by a tiny, burrowing mite)
- Demodicosis (caused by tiny mites that live in or near hair follicles)
- Injection site reactions
- Among other skin conditions
Although identifying the cause of the hot spot can help pet owners to prevent them in the future, in most cases, the severity of the lesion has very little to do with its cause, and everything to do with the bacterial growth that follows.
Additional Issues Regarding Hot Spots
In most cases, hot spots are self-inflicted on the surface of the skin. However, in some cases, hot spots may develop because of an underlying bacterial infection. Furthermore, dogs that have a pre-existing imbalance of bacteria on the skin are at a higher risk of much more rapid worsening of the hot spots.
Physical Signs of Hot Spots
One of the most important things for you to know about hot spots is how to detect them at an early stage. This can prove to be difficult, but knowing the early signs can make a huge difference in how quickly the skin condition can be resolved.
Red Spots on the Skin
Hot spots usually start as a red spot on your dog's skin. By the time you notice the hot spot (even early on), it is typically about the size of a quarter.
However, even before you recognize a hot spot, you might notice your dog paying much more attention to the irritated area. Your dog will likely be perpetually licking, biting, and itching one specific area. This is when it is important for you to intervene and identify whether a hot spot is developing.
Warm to the Touch
Hot spots get their name because they are typically warm to the touch, at least warmer than the dog's surrounding skin. However, once the hot spot has progressed, it'll be difficult for you to touch the wound without causing Fido a significant amount of pain.
Because of the constant licking, you'll find that the surrounding skin and fur is very moist, so much so that you’ll easily be able to see the difference in your dog's fur.
Additional Signs of Hot Spots in Dogs
Recognizing the physical signs of hot spots is the first step to diagnosing it. However, this is not the only way you can help to stop hot spots in their tracks.
The following signs are also associated with hot spots in dogs. However, as you will see, many are non-specific signs. In other words, they can also occur with a slew of other conditions. It is important to definitively diagnose whether your dog has a hot spot before beginning the appropriate treatment.
You should also look for the following signs of hot spots:
- Unusual aggression and behavioral changes (due to your dog associating touch with significant amounts of pain)
- Whining, wincing, or crying out in pain, particularly when touched
- Excessive itching of the skin
- Persistent chewing, biting, licking, or grooming
- Scaly skin surrounding the sore area
- Sores that are scabbing or filled with pus
- Excessive warmth that can be felt on the dog’s coat or skin
- Matted fur
- Wet fur
- Fur with a strong odor (a telltale sign of infection)
- Decreased appetite
- Hair Loss (from excessive licking and scratching)
- Fever (due to a possible infection)
- Lethargy and depression
Dogs at a Higher Risk of Developing Hot Spots
You may be wondering whether or not your dog may be at a higher risk of developing hot spots. Although hot spots can affect any dog, certain breeds are more prone than others. Studies show that dogs that spend more time in water are at a higher risk of having hot spots. Additionally, dogs with conditions such as hip dysplasia are also at a higher risk, as they tend to constantly lick the painful area. This can be true of dogs with all kinds of ailments. If the dog is incessantly licking or biting, they will likely develop a hot spot.
Long-haired dog breeds are also more prone to hot spots than those with shorter hair. Pair a long-haired dog breed with one who also loves the water... chances are you may have to deal with hot spots every now and then.
The following breeds tend to be at a higher risk of developing hot spots than other breeds:
- Golden Retrievers
- German Shepherds
- St. Bernards
- Labrador Retrievers
With that said, just because you have one of the aforementioned breeds doesn't mean they will definitely develop hot spots. On the same note, it is important for dog owners to understand that if the circumstances align, any dog, of any breed, can potentially develop hot spots.
Are Hotspots Contagious?
Many pet owners wonder whether or not hotspots are contagious, particularly if they live in a multi-pet home. The answer is both yes and no. Hot spots themselves are not contagious. However, the underlying cause that led to the development of the hot spot (i.e., fleas, ticks, other parasites, etc.) may certainly be contagious. Again, whenever possible, it is very important for pet parents to get to the bottom of what caused the hot spot in the first place, to make sure all of your pets stay hot spot-free.
Dog Hot Spot Treatment
To reiterate, catching a hot spot early on is key. Once the hotspot becomes larger and develops further, treatment often involves a trip to the vet and prescription medication. Of course, we understand that hot spots can develop extremely quickly and early detection is not always possible.
Shaving & Grooming
If the hot spot increases rapidly in size and severity, you'll want to make an appointment with the vet as soon as possible. The first thing the vet will often do is shave the surrounding area. Shaving will allow the vet to apply a topical medication, help the moist area to become dry, and will also prevent hair from getting into the open sore. Your veterinarian will also apply a non-irritating cleanser and/or astringent or antiseptic spray. This entire process can be a bit painful for your pup, and may even require mild sedation. However, it is necessary to remove any bacteria or other debris that may be present. The antiseptic spray will likely need to be continued at home for several days after, to prevent new infections of the wound.
One of the most common treatments for hot spots is some form of topical medication. Please always ensure to check with your vet first, before using or applying any of the following medications or treatments. Topical treatments could include any one or combination of the following:
Corticosteroid creams help to alleviate discomfort associated with the open wound, as well as ease the itchiness as it heals.
Topical Parasite Treatments
Topical parasite treatments are typically prescribed if fleas and ticks are the underlying causes of the hot spot.
Often times, your vet will recommend cooling ointments made with aloe vera to soothe the skin and provide extra relief.
Topical Antibiotic Ointments
Ointments, like Vetericyn, are also often recommended to help relieve irritated skin and promote the healing process.
Topical Drying Sprays
Additionally, topical drying sprays may be prescribed to help dry the area and thereby facilitate healing. Hot spots develop and thrive in moist areas where bacteria can easily grow. Keeping the area as dry as possible is imperative for the healing process.
Hydrocortisone Sprays and Creams
Hydrocortisone can also help the healing process by alleviating the itchy sensation. If your dog continues to itch and irritate the hot spot, it will only become more inflamed and take longer to heal. In efforts to prevent this, a hydrocortisone anti-itch spray is usually recommended.
Specially Formulated Shampoos
Your vet may also prescribe a specially formulated shampoo to expedite the healing process, while making sure the skin stays clean.
Additionally, depending on the severity of the hot spots, your veterinarian may prescribe an oral medication. Commonly prescribed oral medications include the following:
Anti-parasitic medications are prescribed when the causes of the hot spots are parasites.
Your veterinarian may prescribe oral steroids to reduce the inflammation.
Sometimes, when a more severe infection is present, your vet may prescribe oral antibiotics, in addition to the topical treatment.
When the hot spot is severe, your vet may also prescribe an oral pain medication to provide extra support and pain relief. Prescription pain meds also help the wound to heal faster as the dog won't be constantly licking or itching.
Your vet may prescribe cortisone tablets to help reduce the itching and inflammation.
Oral antihistamines may be recommended to alleviate the itchy sensation, and thereby prevent additional injury from the constant scratching.
*With all conventional medications, it is imperative that you first check with your vet, you’re aware of any potential adverse reactions, and observe your pets closely. The last thing you want to do is clear up your dog's skin issue, only to create another problem caused by the medication.
Cone of Shame
As much as your dog may hate it, wearing a cone (or Elizabethan Collar) might become necessary to help the hot spots to heal fully. Unfortunately, your dogs won't understand why this annoyance is placed around their necks and will likely try to rip it off right away. However, keeping the cone in place is paramount to making sure your dog is unable to lick or bite the wound. The bacteria in your dog's mouth can cause a slew of problems for hot spots. The more you can help to avoid such contact, the better.
Natural Hot Spot Remedies
Remember when we talked about how important it is to catch hot spots early on? Here's why! Many hotspots can be treated naturally at home, as long as they haven't developed into a full-blown, severe condition.
Apple Cider Vinegar
Many pet owners have seen great results with apple cider vinegar (ACV). Simply dilute the ACV with an equal volume of warm water and spray directly onto the hot spot 2–4 times a day.
Antibacterial soap is great if you catch the hot spot early on. It would also help to gently trim any long hair or fur around the hot spot, if your dog would allow you to. If the wound is already raw or oozing, it's likely too late for a simple antibacterial wash.
Dog owners can give their pup a daily oatmeal bath until the hot spot goes away. Experts recommend giving the oatmeal bath in the evening, so that it can exert its effects overnight.
Tea Tree Oil
Essential oils, particularly tea tree oil, are effective in combating various ailments, including hot spots. Tea tree oil has anti-bacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, and anti-inflammatory properties; therefore, when applied topically, it can help to effectively treat the hot spot.
Witch Hazel is an all-natural astringent that pet owners can dab onto the hot spot with a cotton ball.
Many experts in the field of holistic health and wellness refer to vitamin E as “nature's Neosporin.” You can simply cut vitamin E capsules open and rub the oil directly onto the wound.
Coconut oil has powerful anti-bacterial and anti-viral properties that make it a safe, effective way to alleviate skin problems.
Preventing Hot Spots
Once you've successfully treated hot spots on your dog the first time, you'll want to do everything you can to prevent them from ever developing again in the future.
Regular baths and grooming are necessary to keep your dog's skin healthy and prevent hot spots.
Flea & Tick Prevention
Whether you choose a monthly medication or an all-natural alternative, flea and tick prevention is essential, particularly if you live in an area where pests and parasites are prevalent.
A Wet Dog = A Hot Spot Waiting to Happen
Bacteria like to grow in moist environments. After giving your dog a bath, make sure they are fully dried, and don't start to lick or excessively groom themselves!
Physical and Mental Stimulation
Boredom may seem like something that can be easily fixed... and it is! Yet, many pet owners may overlook how important it truly is. Make sure that you're doing all you can to provide your dog with plenty of mental and physical stimulation during the day. There are various types of toys and accessories that are currently available for this purpose.
CBD Infused Coconut Oil
By now, you likely know about the remarkable discussions about CBD and some of its effects in pets. You're also probably familiar with the wonders that coconut oil can do for your dog's skin problems. Well, the masterminds at Honest Paws took it one step further... They have created CBD Infused Coconut Oil. This coconut oil can be applied topically or given orally and is sure to be appreciated by your furry companion.
We are over the moon about this new product and we hope you will be too!
Hot Spots on Dogs: The Bottom Line
At the end of the day, we understand how frustrating hot spots can be. At Honest Paws, we are also dog owners who have dealt with our fair share of hot spot annoyances over the years. Thankfully, hot spots are one of only a few ailments that veterinarians don't consider to be harmful to Fido's overall health and well-being. With that said, treating the hot spot as soon as possible is paramount to preventing the development of any further injury or infection.
Furthermore, by understanding why and how hot spots develop, you can ensure that you are doing all that you can to prevent them in the first place - and trust us... you'll want to prevent them!
Petal Smart, DVM
Petal Smart is a veterinarian who, after a brief stint in clinical practice, has been a medical, veterinary, and science editor for the past four years. She has edited hundreds of research studies that have been published in various academic journals, and more recently, she has been editing blog articles on pet health. She holds a DVM (Hons) from the University of the West Indies - St. Augustine. Her pets in the past have included dogs, fish, birds, and a turtle. At times, she also likes to think of herself as a horse whisperer. You can connect with her on LinkedIn.
*This article has been edited and updated for publication by Petal Smart, DVM.