What is a Hot Spot on a Dog?

Hotspot underneath a Dog's Paw

Perhaps you’ve just been to the vet and been told your pup is suffering from a hot spot. Or maybe you think she has a hot spot, but you aren’t sure.  Either way, we’ll explain what hot spots are, what causes them, and what the common treatments for them are.  

What is a Hot Spot?

Hot spots are also known as pyotramatic dermatitis, moist dermatitis, or moist eczema—but are most commonly referred to as hot spots.

Hot spots are a persistent skin condition that dogs can develop. They are usually in immediate response to excessive scratching or licking.

They appear to be a red, inflamed and often oozing area, usually characterized by thinning fur or a bald spot, and may be scabbed over.

The irritation can encourage your dog to keep licking or scratching this spot obsessively, worsening it and the surrounding area.

Hot Spot on a Dog's Eye

What Causes Hot Spots?

One reason that hot spots are, unfortunately, rather common, is the fact that nearly anything that causes persistent itching in one area can result in a hot spot developing.  A few of the most common causes include:

  • Atopy (environmental allergies)
  • Food allergies
  • Insect bites
  • Flea infestations
  • Mite infestations
  • Skin wounds
  • Skin infections

Even if a skin infection isn’t the root cause of the hot spot, one can develop if your dog is licking constantly for any of the reasons above. Usually, these are bacterial infections and the most common culprit is Staphylococcus, better known as “staph.”

Staph is a very common bacteria—many humans and dogs carry it without incident.

The problem, however, arises when there is an irritation which results in a wound—even a very tiny, invisible one—paired with moisture. This allows the staph, already present, to multiply and cause an infection which can be very difficult to treat.

As the skin in the surrounding area is further irritated and damaged by licking and scratching, the infection—now deeply rooted in the skin—spreads. Along with it, the hot spot also spreads.

Hot Spot on a Dog's Paw

Treating Hot Spots

If you even think your dog is developing a hot spot—or if he is chronically scratching or licking—take him to the vet! Hot spot treatment can be difficult and can take a very long time, during which your beloved friend is likely to be pretty miserable.

The sooner it’s caught, the less likely the staph will be deep in your dog’s skin, and the faster he’ll get better.

Hot spot treatment has three goals, all of which are equally important:

  • Relieving the pain and irritation your pet feels

This is important because unless your pet stops disturbing the area by scratching or licking, it can be nearly impossible for the affected skin to heal. And of course, it will do both you and your pet good to see him feeling better. Topical treatments like sprays and creams may be used for this. Your vet will also give you special cleaning sprays or shampoos, and may also prescribe corticosteroids like prednisone, or antihistamines to be taken orally, depending on the severity of the condition and the root causes.

  • Overcoming the infection

Any symptom relief is going to be temporary if the staph infection isn’t dealt with.  Oral antibiotics are usually the go-to here, although your vet may decide to utilize injections immediately to speed the initial healing.  

  • Resolving the trigger

Something caused the itching or irritation in the first place—and if possible, your vet will want to identify this cause and resolve it.  

This may not be possible, if this trigger was something innocuous and infrequent like a tiny wound or bug bite. However, if there’s something else—a food allergy, a flea infestation, even a place you take your dog to visit which has allergens present—it’s important to identify it so the hot spot doesn’t reoccur.

Aside from giving your dog the medications the vet has recommended, whether oral or topical, battling the hot spot is going to take a bit of dedication on your part.  Your vet will likely clip the fur surrounding the hot spot to make your job—cleaning and medicating the area—a bit easier.  You’ll need to:

  1. Keep the fur trimmed until the hot spot is healed. You want the area to remain very clean and accessible to whatever creams or sprays you’re using.  Additionally, moisture feeds hot spots, and keeping the area open to the air can help prevent it from worsening.
  2. Use your vet recommended antiseptic spray or shampoo to clean the area. Gently but thoroughly dry it by patting it with paper towels. While bath towels are nice and fluffy, they tend to harbor bacteria and moisture that aren’t dangerous to your bare skin, but are dangerous to what is effectively an open wound on your pup.  Clean the area as often as your vet recommends. This may be several times daily at first—if so, do keep to the vet’s schedule, as this is a critical part of the process.
  3. Apply the topical and give the oral medications recommended by the vet at appropriate intervals.
  4. Prevent scratching and licking the area, even if you must resort to an Elizabethan cone or constant supervision.

Follow up with your vet regularly on your dog’s healing progress.  Even very minor hot spots can get out of control quickly.

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