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Hot Spots in Dogs

Animals Affected

Dogs

Overview

Hot spots are areas of skin that rapidly become irritated and infected, resulting in hair loss, moistness, and inflammation of the area.   They are called "hot" because they develop very quickly--in many cases overnight.  Often, self trauma such as excessive licking or scratching is involved in the development of hot spots.  However, hot spots can occur in the absence of licking or scratching.

Symptoms

Typical hot spots appear as rapidly developing areas of red, moist, hairless skin.  Dogs with developing hot spots may also exhibit the following symptoms.

  • A moist area of hair located above or around the hot spot.
  • A malodorous (foul smelling) area of skin or fur.
  • Blood or pus on the hair.
  • Thickened, warm, red, or painful skin in the affected area.
  • Focused scratching or licking of the area.

Risk Factors and Prevention

  • Coat length is a key risk factor.  Dogs with longer hair are more susceptible to hot spots because long hair can trap moisture at the level of the skin.  This contributes to infection.
  • Dogs with allergies to fleas, food, or pollen are at increased risk for hot spots.
  • Some breeds of dog, such as Golden Retrievers and Chow Chows, have higher rates of hot spots.  The hereditary link to hot spots is related to the two risk factors listed above.
  • Dogs who do not receive regular effective flea control suffer much higher rates of hot spots.  This is true even if the pet has no visible flea infestation.
  • Hot spots are more common during periods of warm, humid weather.
  • Dogs who are nervous are more likely to engage in focused licking or scratching and are more susceptible to hot spots.

Complications

  • Hot spots are painful.
  • Untreated hot spots can lead to scarring and chronic skin disease.
  • Extreme hot spots can lead to infection that spreads from the skin to the blood, causing sepsis or death.  This is very rare.

Diagnosis

Diagnosis usually is made by visual inspection of the area by a qualified professional.  In some cases it is necessary to rule out other types of skin disease (such as ringworm or immune-mediated skin disease) by running tests such as fungal cultures, skin cultures, skin scrapings, or biopsies.

Treatment

The mainstays of treatment are removal of hair from around the area (to help keep the skin dry), cleaning of the area, and application of  topical medications to relieve inflammation and fight infection.  Be aware that trimming a dog's hair with scissors can be very dangerous and may lead to severe skin trauma.  Hot spots should not be treated at home without first obtaining a diagnosis from a veterinarian.

In addition to hair removal, cleaning, and application of topical medications, veterinarians may employ the following tactics.

  • Oral antibiotics such as cephalosporins, fluoroquinolones, or penicillins may be prescribed for large or severe hot spots.
  • Cortisone or prednisone may be used to fight inflammation and pain.
  • Elizabethan collars (cone collars) may be used to eliminate self trauma from licking.
  • Antihistamines may be prescribed to fight allergies.
  • Effective flea control may be recommended to prevent recurrence.

Follow-up

When properly treated, most hot spots dry and heal over several days.   Follow-up evaluation by a veterinarian is needed only for severe hot spots or hot spots that don't improve within one week.

Miscellaneous

Flea prevention is the most effective way to prevent hot spots.

Veterinarians sometimes refer to hot spots as pyotraumatic dermatitis.

True hot spots are very rare in cats.  When a lesion that looks like a hot spot is present on a cat it should be differentiated from syndromes such as ringworm, immune mediated skin disease, and skin tumors.

Copyright © Eric Barchas, DVM. All rights reserved.
The contents of this page are provided for general informational purposes only. Under no circumstances should this page be substituted for professional consultation with a veterinarian.