What is a hot spot and what causes it?
Most dog owners have seen their pups suffer with hot spots caused by the almost manic licking and chewing at a particular area. “Hot spot” is just a common way to refer to moist dermatitis which is any severe skin irritation that results when your pup repeatedly licks and bites at one particular area on his skin. He will start licking and chewing at the fur or hair in one or more areas and, before you know it, he will have chewed all the way down to the skin and start working on the newly bare skin. The raw skin then typically develops a bacterial infection which becomes inflamed and painful, causing your pup to bite and chew even more.
Hot spots are, unfortunately, very common and can occur in any dog and anywhere on the body. The good news for cat owners is that they rarely occur in our feline babies.
So what causes the itchiness that motivates the licking and chewing that lead to a hot spot? There are many possible causes, including:
- Environmental or food allergies or allergic reactions
- Insect bites including fleas and ticks
- An injury like a cut or scrape
- Joint or bone pain
- Anxiety or emotional trauma
Once the chewing and licking begin, the skin starts to itch not just from the original cause of the irritation but from the additional damage being done to the skin. This triggers an itching cycle that perpetuates itself and causes even more inflammation and skin damage from the continuing licking and chewing. This irritates the spot further, resulting in hair loss, damaged skin and the bacterial skin infection called ‘moist dermatitis’.
Stop the madness!…and figure out the cause
- First and foremost, as soon as you see your pup starting to lick or chew repeatedly at the same area, try to immediate break the itch cycle by stopping your pup from licking and chewing. You may have to use an Elizabethan Collar or ‘satellite dish’ but don’t just slap on the collar and leave your pup to suffer with the itch without being able to get at it. Put the collar on after you have begun to treat the hot spot (see below).
- Getting your pup to stock licking and chewing means, of course, that you need to address the underlying cause of the itch so the second thing to do is figure out what is causing the itch.
- Check the area being chewed for signs of insect bites or surface injury due to a cut or scrape.
- Make sure your dog doesn’t have fleas or ticks and, if he does, immediately given him an appropriate medication or holistic remedy to deal with the bugs. Hot spots get worse with the presence of excess moisture so you may want to hold off on bathing your pup until the hot spot has cleared up. One fleabite can cause extreme itchiness in a sensitive dog so treating for fleas and ticks (including your dog’s environment) is a must!
- If your pup is injured or elderly and suffers from arthritis or joint pain, he may be chewing the painful area. In that case, you will want to address the underlying pain which will then cause him to stop chewing at that area.
- If there are no signs of any bugs, bites, cuts or scrapes and your pup isn’t suffering from underlying pain, consider a food or environmental allergy. If you have recently changed your pup’s food, he may be reacting badly to something in the new food or if you have recently moved, planted something new in the garden or traveled somewhere with your pup he may have developed a plant allergy. Unfortunately, the only way to determine if your pup is suffering from allergies is to have the appropriate testing done.
- If you eliminate all other causes, consider whether your pup is suffering from some sort of anxiety or stress and take steps to eliminate the source of the emotional disturbance.
OK, I know what caused the hot spot but what do I do about the hot spot itself?
Bacteria and the yeast that sometimes grows in areas of bacterial infection thrive on moisture so here is what you should do to treat the hot spot:
- Carefully dry the hot spot area – remember it is inflamed and painful so be gentle.
- Clip or shave – carefully! – the hair around the infected area. You want to expose the whole area to as much air as possible to aid the drying out process.
- Clean the area with a very mild, water-based cleanser and dry again. You will need to keep cleaning and drying the area as necessary until it is fully healed.
- Apply a hydrocortisone spray or cream (which may require a prescription you’re your veterinarian) to stop the itching and start the healing process. Once the itching stops, your pup will stop chewing and licking the area which will allow the healing process to begin. Be sure to prevent your pup from licking the medicine off – this is where the E-collar comes in.
- You may also want to try an application of natural mud as a holistic alternative to traditional pharmacological intervention.
- You may have to get your pup an initial shot of cortisone to stop the itchiness and he may also need antibiotics to deal with the infection.
- Do not bandage the infected area – the hot spot needs as much fresh air as possible to dry out and heal.
Bottom line: Prevention is the best protection!
Stay vigilant, figure out the underlying cause of the itch and address it immediately. Once you have started the correct treatment and so long as you didn’t let it go to far, the hot spot should heal fairly quickly. Make sure to stay on top of whatever the underlying cause was and prevent that from recurring. Specifically:
- Keep your pup and his environment flea and tick-free.
- Make sure he is eating the proper food with sufficient nutrients, fatty acids and dietary supplements, like diatomaceous earth.
- Treat any arthritis or joint pain
All of these measures will provide your pup with the best protection from a repeat hot spot occurrence.
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