Written by: Dr. Chip Coombs
Those two words have many owners of long-haired dogs shaking in their shoes when the hot, humid weather of summer arrives – and justly so. “Hot spots” are essentially localized areas of moist, bacterially infected skin or moist dermatitis. They are intensely itchy and bothersome to dogs and very frustrating for an owner to manage. Unless an owner has become a seasoned veteran through dealing with the problem year after year, developing a hot spot usually means a trip to the veterinarian for most.
Bacteria are normal inhabitants of the superficial skin layers, as they are on virtually every external surface. However, normal skin has natural barriers to prevent the bacteria from becoming a problem. If, however, a dog responds to being itchy by licking, chewing, biting or scratching a particular spot, the skin becomes inflamed and with the self-trauma, the superficial skin layers become damaged. Bacteria are opportunists and once the skin is damaged, they will penetrate the superficial layers causing infection, more inflammation, and itchiness. A dog responds by more licking, chewing and scratching so the cycle worsens. Anything, such as insect bites, or a wet coat that causes a dog to scratch or chew its skin can initiate a hot spot.
These areas of moist dermatitis can develop very quickly, literally within hours. An area the size of a toonie can become a dinner plate sized mess overnight. Hence, if you suspect your dog is paying an excessive amount of attention to a part of its body, it is important to examine the skin for any moisture, redness, pus or matting of hair. Common locations would be the face, below the ears, neck and hip regions. However, potentially any haired part of the body could be affected and the sooner your dog is examined by a veterinarian the better.
Treatment involves shaving the hair on and around the moist inflamed skin. If this area is large, it can be painful to shave and clean, so sedation may be required. Once the hair is removed the air can get at the infected skin to help dry it up. Usually, oral antibiotics will be dispensed, along with anti-inflammatory drugs to take away the itchiness and irritation. Topically, it is important to gently keep the area clean and scab free, if possible. No doubt topical creams or sprays will be dispensed as well. The most important, and most difficult, part of the treatment is keeping your dog from continually going after the affected area. T-shirts or the cone of shame (e-collar) can be very helpful, depending upon where the hot spot is located.
Although hot spots can appear in any breed, they are very common in long-haired dogs, as well as dogs that are in and out of the water all the time. The heat of the summer, along with the humid air (or the water from going for a swim) create an ideal environment at the skin level for the bacteria to multiply and for the skin to become itchy. Swimming in questionable urban streams will only exacerbate the problem.
Once an owner has experienced their dog having its first hot spot episode, they will know what to look for in terms of their dog’s behaviour and will hopefully be able to nip the issue early. If the skin area is very small, and an owner finds themselves far from a local veterinary hospital, they can be successful in preventing it from worsening and quite likely clearing it up on their own. Start by clipping away the hair as close to the skin as possible (without cutting the patient!). Keeping the area clean using a mild antibacterial cleanser, patting the area dry and then applying a very thin layer of 1% hydrocortisone cream to the skin will often work.
If your dog has a constant issue with this form of dermatitis, it's worthwhile having a discussion with your veterinarian on prevention or ruling out some other underlying problem, such as skin allergies or hypothyroidism. Some owners may wish to shave their dog for the hot summer months. Generally, this will lower the incidence of hot spots, but it is also removing a dog’s ability to better thermos-regulate and the hair may not grow back to its original state. It's worthwhile discussing the pros and cons with your veterinarian prior to going down this path.