Hot spots and your dog…when obsessive licking and scratching could mean trouble

Is your dog always — ALWAYS — licking or scratching a specific spot behind an ear, between the toes, under the tail, or anywhere in between? Dogs engage in obsessive licking as a self-soothing behavior. If the licking (or nibbling, rubbing, chewing, or even biting) seems constant, your dog may have a hot spot.

Many things can cause hot spots, including superficial wounds, allergies, and insect bites. Next, an imbalance in the skin’s natural bacteria, Staphylococcus Intermedius, is made worse by your dog’s chewing and scratching. Bacteria introduced from your dog’s mouth triggers the body’s immune system to engage resulting in heat, redness, itching, inflammation and pain. Once activated, this common canine skin condition will almost always require medical attention from your veterinarian.

As soon as you notice your dog obsessively licking an area, check in with Airvet and show us a clear image of the area.

What are “hot spots” in dogs?

The medical name for a hot spot is acute moist dermatitis or pyotraumatic dermatitis, and the “moist” part is important to note. Dogs are prone to many kinds of skin irritation, but hot spots look oozy, wet and red, similar to the moist skin resulting from a burn, or the appearance of skin if you pick off a scab too soon. Sometimes they will develop yellow discharge as well.

A hot spot begins as an irritation of the skin. It’s often triggered by moisture trapped against the skin, and is commonly seen in shaggy breeds with thick coats. If your dog is a Golden Retriever, St. Bernard, German Shepherd, Labrador Retriever or Rottweiler, for instance, check your furry friend’s body carefully each day. Regular brushing and grooming helps prevent hot spots, and allows you to see the first signs of a hot spot so you can correct it quickly.

What do hot spots look like?

Slight irritation

If your dog’s skin is only slightly irritated, it’s possible that a home remedy applied to the skin as a bath or balm may be helpful. Home remedies for hot spots include black tea, epsom salt baths, triple antibiotic ointment, aloe and some shampoos. These treatments may also be useful in preventing skin issues. Consult with the Airvet team before attempting at-home treatments.

Red and inflamed

If your dog’s skin is already red and inflamed, schedule an immediate, in-person vet visit. Generally, most hot spots are infected. Hot spots can quickly become quite painful, and your vet may recommend that your dog be sedated during the initial treatment if extensive clipping is necessary.

Hot spots that are “productive” or produce pus

If the lesion on your dog is highly “productive,” which is a nice way of saying the wound is oozing pus, your vet may collect some of the secretion on a glass slide for a quick microscopic examination of it. Most likely, your vet will clip or shave the fur around each lesion, and clean and disinfect the area. They might prescribe antibiotics by mouth as a systemic treatment, as a topical treatment applied to the skin, or both.

Antibiotics typically reduce symptoms within a few days, and in most dogs, the fur will quickly grow back. Your vet may recommend a longer course of medication, depending upon the severity of the infection. If your dog develops recurring hot spots, consult with your vet to uncover any underlying causes of them.

Hot spots and discolored fur

Often, the first clue may be an area of your dog’s fur that looks discolored. This happens when a dog obsessively licks their fur, leaving behind the enzymes and pigments from their saliva. The area may appear reddish-brown or lighter than the rest of their fur. Eventually, a hot spot will cause hair loss in that area, making the sore easier to see, and signaling that your dog needs help soon.

Hot spots feel hot and inflamed

Hot spots sometimes feel hot due to inflammation. If the hot spot is more than a day old, it may also be the site of a bacterial infection, and this infection adds to the heat. Hot spots can literally spread within a matter of hours. Swelling, oozing and an angry red appearance are all signs of infection, so see your vet promptly if you observe this worsening condition.

Insect bites can look like hot spots

Be careful not to mistake a hot spot for an insect-bite. Although a bug bite may set off inflammation in your dog’s skin, a hot spot differs in appearance from an insect bite in that it will spread and grow and turn into a painful lesion. An infected hot spot will ooze and drain, and you may detect a sour odor, which is a sign of an advancing infection.

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Where do dogs get hot spots?

Your dog can get a hot spot almost anywhere on the body. Areas where moisture is trapped are common sites, however. For instance, if your dog has adorable drop-ears (think Basset Hound) moisture build-up under the ear flap can lead to a hot spot. Other common locations are the neck and paws. But a hot spot can form anywhere on your dog’s body.

What causes hot spots in dogs? And how can they be prevented and treated?

Numerous factors may cause hot spots in dogs:

Damp skin that never dries

Moisture and dampness trapped against the skin that doesn’t evaporate can trigger inflammation. Dogs with thick, heavy coats that trap moisture are most prone to this type of hot spot, especially if they love playing in the water, and especially in summer.

Hot spot prevention tips: Dry your dog’s coat thoroughly each time he swims, splashes and gets wet. In addition to a big, plush towel, it is safe to use a blow-dryer on your dog with the heat set to “low” and the nozzle at least 4 inches away from your dog’s skin. Be sure to constantly move the dryer so it doesn’t burn any one spot. Alternatively, get a canine-friendly dryer – the kind that breeders use. These dryers don’t generate heat, but quickly blast water out of the fur. Finally, consider a short haircut for your dog, especially in very hot and humid conditions.

Poor grooming

Even if your dog doesn’t get to the beach or play in the pool, matted fur can prevent air flow from reaching the skin. The skin of all mammals naturally expels dead skin cells. Allowing this naturally-shed debris to accumulate on your dog’s skin may attract parasites including mites, and can invite bacteria to colonize, inviting infection.

Hot spot prevention tip: Regularly bathe, brush and groom your dog. Dogs benefit from human support when it comes to bathing and grooming! Remember that the canines we love have evolved from their original ancestral form. Centuries of specialized breeding have created unusual coat textures and many other characteristics that do not occur in the wild, so commit to keeping your dog clean and healthy with regular baths and brushing.

Matting and hot spots

Pay special attention to matting in dogs with long fur or who are older and/or sick:

  • Long-haired dogs with super-heavy, thick, shaggy coats may have trouble with hot spots especially if their coat develops mats.
  • Older dogs which may not have the flexibility to reach their entire bodies with their tongue may often develop mats.
  • Sick, depressed or lethargic dogs which have lost their joi de vivre. Once a dog develops mats, it’s time to see a groomer.
Allergies

Allergies are often the origin of hot spots. The allergy can trigger an itch which your dog may then obsessively lick, in an attempt to soothe itself. Common sources of allergies include:

  • Flea bites
  • Food ingredients
  • Household chemicals (like insecticide sprayed on your lawn, or carpet-cleaner in your home), or
  • Natural irritants like pollen
Ear infections

A bacterial or fungal infection in the ear causes burning, stinging and itching, and your dog can easily scratch the base of the ear raw, trying to get relief. This irritation can trigger the formation of a hot spot, usually behind the ear, on the ear flap, or on your dog’s neck.

Bug bites

Fleas, flies, ticks, mites, lice, ants, wasps, hornets, bees, spiders, centipedes, mosquitoes, and even cute-looking caterpillars can bite or sting your dog. Your dog’s natural reaction is to lick wherever it hurts. Saliva is usually not effective in calming itching or stinging, so if your dog keeps at it, the bite may turn into a hot spot. And, the bacteria in the dog’s mouth can trigger a secondary infection.

Safety note about stings: If your dog has received more than two stings from a bee, wasp or hornet, take your pet to the vet immediately. In dogs that are allergic to insect stings, even one can trigger a reaction. If you see hives or swelling of the face, seek immediate veterinary care.

Hot spot prevention tip: Commit to a program of flea-prevention.

Arthritis and back pain

Dogs that live with skeletal and muscular issues typically lie on one side for long periods of time because it’s painful for them to shift their weight and roll over.

Just as humans can quickly develop bed sores from lying immobile, points where your dog’s body is under long-term pressure can become sites for hot spots. These will often be bony places on the body where there isn’t a lot of padding, like the hocks and hips. Older dogs which are losing muscle mass are especially prone to this and will often start gnawing and licking at those pressure-points to relieve pressure and pain.

Hot spot prevention tip: Invest in high-quality, super-padded bedding to help your dog feel more comfortable. Cooling gel bed pads may be helpful to a dog with arthritis or other skeletal or joint pain, and many dog beds contain a heating element. In addition, microwaveable heating accessories are available in your pet store. Since these can become extremely warm, it is important to thoroughly check them for hot areas before allowing your pet to come into contact with them.

Inflammation or infection anywhere on the body

A healthy body can normally fight infection effectively, so any infection may signal more involved health issues. Check in with Airvet as soon as you observe anything that looks like it may turn into a hot spot.

Inflammation or infection that doesn’t clear within 48 hours requires an in-person vet visit. Your vet may prescribe corticosteroids, non-steroidal anti-inflammatories, antihistamines and/or antibiotics to help alleviate symptoms. If your pet develops recurrent hot spots, the goal is to identify the underlying cause that is suppressing your dog’s healthy immune response so future hot spots can be prevented.

Boredom, anxiety, stress or loneliness

Hot spots on the tops of the paws can signal that your dog needs more mental stimulation, physical activity, emotional reassurance, and/or social contact. Repetitive licking of the paws may start as a form of self-soothing. Dogs in isolation frequently develop hot spots on their paws for this reason.

Use a cone to prevent excessive irritation to healing hot spots

As hot spots heal, your dog may want to resume excessive licking, chewing and rubbing, and the only way to prevent this is with a cone or Elizabethan collar. Soft “donut” cones are more comfortable for dogs than their rigid plastic counterparts, so do your pup a favor and shop around for a cone that’s comfortable. Remember that the cone must prevent them from reaching the irritated spot; sometimes rigid cones are necessary when the spot is on a leg.

Hot spot prevention

Once your dog’s hot spots have cleared, work with your vet to plan an effective preventive strategy for the future. This may include:

  • Monthly flea prevention
  • Supplemental essential fatty acids to help build your dog’s skin strength
  • A hypoallergenic diet
  • A short haircut as a way to prevent mats and moisture build-up
  • Chew toys to satisfy the need to work those powerful jaws; and
  • More exercise and play to release stress
  • Allergy medication
  • Prescription or oatmeal dog shampoos, conditioners, or sprays

Pay attention to your dog’s daily health and wellbeing and make note of any changes. Identifying and treating hot spots while they are still small will prevent your dog from enduring any unnecessary pain.

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