What Causes Hot Spots on Dogs? (And How to Treat Them)

What causes hot spots on dogs? Hot spots are inflamed areas on your dog’s skin that he excessively licks, bites and scratches at until they become gory and infected. Although they’re more common in certain breeds — Labs and goldens seem particularly susceptible — any dog can get them.

What Causes Hot Spots on Dogs?

Contrary to what their name implies, hot spots aren’t caused by heat, although extremely hot weather can certain trigger them. Some skin infections can cause them, but it’s more likely that the culprit is a bad reaction to insect bites, an injury or surgery, environmental injuries, poor quality food or even boredom. In other words, hot spots are a secondary symptom of a larger problem, and until you determine what that problem is, the hot spots won’t go away.

In the case of insect bites, you may not even know there’s a problem until you see the hot spot. Although fleas are usually the most common offenders, spider bites and bee or wasp stings can also trigger hot spots.

Any kind of injury can be the source of the hot spots. When dogs are in pain, whether from a surgery, scrape, puncture or break, they tend to lick the area incessantly, which is why they’re sent home from the vet in the “cone of shame.”

Environmental allergies, especially reactions to grass and pollen, can cause itchy skin and, in turn, hot spots. Allergies are tough to deal with, especially allergies to common substances, so your dog could potentially develop multiple hot spots over his body.

Poor quality food is probably the second-most common source of hot spots (flea dermatitis is the first), but it’s also the easiest to control on a long-term basis.

As for boredom, well, bored dogs act out in all sorts of unpleasant ways. If your dog is too much of a gentleman to pee on your bed or destroy the sofa, he might be trying to lick himself to death in order to get your attention.

Complications

Infection usually sets in after the dog has irritated the area, turning the hot spot into a serious wound. Then the dog will lick the infected area, further worsening the hot spot. Left untreated, hot spots can grow quite serious, so if you notice one beginning to form, treat the area immediately.

Symptoms

Fortunately, hot spots are easy to identify. You’ll see a red, oozing area that looks like an open wound, usually with hair missing from the area. You might also notice pus. Hot spots can develop extremely quickly, often in as little as one day. If your dog has longer hair, you might not see the wound right away, so pay attention if you notice your pup licking the same area over and over.

Hot spots can be painful for dogs. Because canines often react to pain by biting, be careful when handling him or touching the inflamed area. If he starts to growl or show his teeth, you may need to muzzle him before you can treat him.

Treatment

If you notice a hot spot developing, take your dog to the veterinarian, especially if it’s the first time your dog has had one. Without treatment of the underlying cause of the problem, the hot spots will continue to grow, and more might even appear.

Your dog will probably need a round of antibiotic pet meds to heal or prevent infection, as well as an antibiotic salve to sooth the area.

The first thing your vet will do is shave the area so the wound can begin to dry out. I would not recommend doing this yourself, as your dog might need to be sedated first. Remember, hot spots on dogs are very painful.

Next, the veterinarian will clean the area thoroughly and let you know if your dog needs antibiotics; he most likely will, if not to clear up an existing infection, then to stave off an impending one. Your vet should also advise you to apply a triple-antibiotic cream and a topical drying spray two to three times a day.

Keep the area clean and as dry as possible. Bathe your dog with a soothing shampoo once a week, and apply cool compresses a few times a day; tea bags work especially well for this. A hydrocortisone cream can also help.

Prevention

After the hot spot heals, there is no guarantee that your dog won’t chew himself raw again. Instead of treating each new instance, try some of these tips to prevent more hot spots from recurring.

  • Add a fish oil or Omega-3 supplement to his food, which will improve his coat and prevent itchiness. After about a month, you’ll see a noticeable improvement in his fur.
  • Have your dog’s thyroid checked once a year. Hypothyroidism is common in many breeds. One of the most recognizable symptoms is a rough, unhealthy coat prone to skin problems. Hypothyroidism is simple to treat: a twice-daily doze of Soloxine or another thyroid-elevating prescription drug, all of which are very inexpensive.
  • Grain-based fillers and poor quality foods can cause dry, itchy skin, which can in turn cause hot spots. The best thing you can do for your dog—not only for his skin, but for his overall health—is to switch to a quality food, especially a fish-and-potato food that doesn’t contain grains or animal byproducts.
  • Bathe your dog weekly with a skin-soothing shampoo, like oatmeal, and use conditioner on him. Don’t use human shampoo, which doesn’t have the right pH balance for dogs. If you notice that frequent shampooing is drying out your dog’s skin, switch to a twice-monthly routine.

Does anyone have any other tips for preventing or treating hot spots? Please share them in the comments section below.

Photo: Dan Harrelson/Flickr

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  • http://www.dogwalkersmelbourne.com.au/dog-treats-natural-cat.html Bruce dog treat guy

    Hi, I would just like to comment on your great article. I have a poodle cross cocker spaniel who is in the category of ‘face scrubber’ Ie extreme reaction to environmental triggers such as grass blooms etc.

    He gets hot spots, and as you know, these are often in the same places each year, such as on his feet and rump. We were told if we could desensitize him it would be ideal, but lately we also came across amazing info on Omega 3.

    Reading many articles it appears that this could completely repair dry skin and reduce hotspots significantly. I have him on a daily dose at the moment (for first month) but will then put him on maintenance dose schedule.

    Hope that helps … Cheers, Bruce

    • http://www.crankyeditor.com/ Tamar Love Grande

      Thank you so much! Your comment pointed out a huge omission on my part — how to avoid hot spots. I’m going to edit it right now to include that information. Thanks again!

  • Joshua

    My Dog died of Hotspot at 9/26/2012
    8:30 AM
    Depressed

  • cynny

    Thank you so much for the information you’ve given. My poor beautiful
    Collie has suffered for 5 years. We have paid hundreds upon hundreds of
    pounds for the vets to do blood and skin tests and then give him
    medication that has made no difference. We were at the point where we
    considered a “final” visit to the vet to put him out his misery. 48
    hours after changing his food and giving him antihistamines we have a
    different dog. 48hours!!! His skin is almost clear of inflammation, the
    dead skin has fallen off, he is not scratching at all, his eyes are
    bright and happy and best of all, his tail is wagging again. I cant
    believe it was this easy to get rid of. The food is more expensive but
    he eats half the amount so we can afford to feed him better quality.
    THANK YOU SO MUCH!!!!

  • Tan

    Stress seems to cause hotspots for our dog, she gets a bad outbreak whenever we go away.
    We put powder known as ‘curash’ in Australia on any red areas and it helps dry the skin out preventing hotspots.