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Helping dogs With hot spots

Hot spots are itchy, painful, and messy, and can appear suddenly in both dogs and cats, but are seen more frequently in dogs. With appropriate treatment, they can be resolved quickly.

What is a hot spot?

A hot spot is known by the medical terms acute moist dermatitis. Dermatitis can define the problem if you are familiar with the terminology:

  • Derm = skin
  • Itis = inflammation

Acute moist dermatitis describes a hot spot that shows up suddenly, rather than a smoldering chronic skin lesion. The lesions are moist, because inflammation is causing leakage of blood from the affected skin’s tiny blood vessels.

Thus, hot spots are localized areas of moderate-to-severe skin inflammation that typically crop up quickly—it is not unusual for a hot spot to show up in only 10 minutes under favorable conditions. Hot spots can occur year-round, but are seen more frequently during the warm months.

What are the signs of hot spots in dogs?

Hot spots are easily visible. The lesions are raw, red, and oozing, can vary in size, and are always itchy. Your dog will pay a lot of attention to a hot spot, because the inflammation makes the lesion exquisitely painful, and they may cry as they scratch or chew the spot.

What causes hot spots in dogs?

Hot spots can be caused by any irritation to your dog’s skin. Common causes include:

  • Insect (e.g., flea or mosquito) bites
  • Allergies
  • Excess moisture on the skin
  • Heavy, dense hair coats
  • Matted hair
  • Skin injuries (e.g., scrapes or cuts)
  • Clipper burn

A slightly irritated skin area turns into a hot spot when your dog starts scratching and chewing the sore spot, traumatizing the skin, and causing an oozy lesion that not only still itches, but now also hurts. Dogs and cats always have bacteria near the mouth called Staphylococcus intermedius, which is the most commonly found causative agent in hot spots.

How are hot spots diagnosed?

Typically, your veterinarian will diagnose a hot spot based on your pet’s physical exam and recent history. A superficial, itchy, and painful skin lesion can be quickly diagnosed, but some pets will have hot spots hiding under their thick coats or matted fur. Most hot spots are easy to find.

A hot spot can occur due to a variety of causes, often linked to its location; for example, a hot spot on the hip may indicate underlying joint-disease pain, while a hot spot near the ear may mean an external ear infection.

How are hot spots treated?

Tiny hot spots may resolve on their own, but because they tend to enlarge quickly, hot spots should always be evaluated by your veterinary health care team. Treatment, if needed, usually centers on keeping the affected area dry and out of harm’s reach in addition to treating any underlying condition detected.

The fur surrounding the lesion will be clipped away to reveal the entire hot spot and ensure thorough treatment, which may include:

  • Cleaning the wound with an antimicrobial solution, which will cause fast, effective improvement
  • Applying astringents directly to the affected site to dry the lesion, decrease exudation, and promote scab formation
  • Using topical steroids for 7 to 14 days to decrease inflammation and pain associated with the lesion until the lesion is healed; the steroids can be applied using a spray that contains a corticosteroid and astringent agent, or an ointment containing a potent steroid
  • Wearing an Elizabethan collar (e-collar or “cone of shame”) until the itchiness decreases, to prevent further damage to the lesions

Most hot spots will resolve in less than a week with appropriate treatment. Recurrent lesions will warrant further investigation.

Can hot spots be prevented?

Hot spots cannot be prevented, but they can be avoided by ensuring your pet is in overall good health. If you live in an area where fleas and ticks are a problem, be vigilant with parasite preventives, because flea allergies commonly cause hot spots when a flea bite starts your dog on a vicious itch-scratch cycle.