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What Are Hot Spots on a Dog?

hot spots on dog featured image

One of the most common reasons dog parents seek veterinary care is to treat skin-related issues. Many dog owners have at some point found what is referred to as a “hot spot” on their dog’s skin. They can range from mildly irritating to very painful for dogs, so it is no surprise that dog owners do everything they can to prevent them. If you don’t know what hot spots are or want to know how to identify and treat a dog hot spot, you’re in the right place!

What Are Hot Spots?

A canine hot spot is a generalized term used by veterinarians and dog owners to describe a small, localized area of infection on the surface of a dog’s skin. In the veterinary world, hot spots are also referred to as pyotraumatic dermatitis or acute moist dermatitis.

lick granuloma on labrador retriever lower portion of leg

These skin lesions tend to appear on the skin of long-haired or double-coated breeds that spend significant amounts of time in the water, like Golden Retrievers, Labrador Retrievers, and Duck Tolling Retrievers.

When long-haired dogs spend time in the water, yeast and bacteria from lakes, ponds, and pools can become trapped beneath the coat. While this can happen to just about any dog, breeds with longer and thicker coats are far more susceptible. The coat traps and covers the bacteria and reduces airflow, which creates the perfect environment for the bacteria to replicate.

When the bacteria spread on the surface of the dog’s skin, small, circular spots of infection can appear. In most cases, these infection clusters occur on the neck, face, and behind the ears. With that said, hot spots can appear anywhere on a dog’s skin.

What Do Hot Spots Look Like?

Typically, hot spots form as circular patches of inflamed and irritated skin. The skin’s surface will almost always have a damp or moist appearance and the same for the surrounding fur.

In many cases, hot spots can be difficult to see since they are far more common in long-haired breeds. Since the fur makes it difficult to visualize the dog’s skin, the hot spots can remain obscured for a long time before the owner or a veterinarian detects them. In these cases, the dog’s behavior will usually indicate that they have hot spots. Watch for scratching, licking, and noticeable signs of irritation, as these often indicate a hot spot is beneath the fur.

In some cases, hot spots can become scabbed and crusted. In other situations, hot spots look like irritated skin that is moist and reddened.

Severe hot spots can sometimes present puss along the surface of the infection. In these cases, the hot spot can also trigger a painful rash on the surface of the skin that surrounds the hot spot.

Hot Spots Can Sometimes Make a Dog Smell Different

Dogs with hot spots can sometimes be malodourous, meaning they carry a distinct, unpleasant smell.

Since the coat traps the infection, the fur can begin to smell. In most cases, the scent will be reminiscent of yeast or dirty and stale water. If you notice that your dog has a yeasty smell, no matter how often you bathe them, you might want to check the surface of the skin for hot spots.

Hot spots also itch a lot, so if you notice your dog is repeatedly scratching a specific area of itchy skin or tends to rub its body on things, it could be worth checking underneath the coat for signs of hot spots and other forms of skin irritation.

What Causes Hot Spots?

As mentioned, hot spots are far more common on dogs with long coats, especially if the coat is thick. Breeds that enjoy swimming or any dog that spends a significant amount of time in the water are also significantly more likely to develop hot spots.

close up of dog swimming into sea water during day time

Natural bodies of water, like ponds and lakes, tend to contain the bacteria and yeast that cause hot spots; however, even puddles formed by rainwater, flowing hose water, and chemically treated pools can contain the bacteria that causes hot spots.

Even small amounts of the bacteria and yeast that get trapped under the coat can lead to hot spots, as the moist and warm environment is the perfect place for these various types of bacteria to replicate and spread.

If the dog’s skin does not dry properly after being wet, or you have not washed its coat properly after the dog has been swimming in dirty water, hot spots can form.

Hot spots can also form when your dog bites or scratches an area of itchy skin and breaks the skin surface. This itching can result from things like a flea infestation, allergic reaction, skin parasites, or an insect bite. Irritated skin combined with excessive licking and scratching can quickly lead to a skin infection, which, again, is the underlying cause of hot spots on dogs.

How Can I Treat Hot Spots?

The key to successfully treating a hot spot is making sure the infected skin has ample air exposure. Shaving the area where you locate a hot spot is the first and most important step.

You can do this safely with any dog-safe clipping tool. If you do not feel comfortable doing it yourself, most veterinarians and professional groomers can do it for a small fee.

Once you shave the area, you can apply mild antiseptic soap to the surface to help clean and disinfect the skin. You can also purchase medicated shampoo or topical medication that contains mild antibiotics or fungal remedies at most pet stores and veterinary clinics. These specialized shampoos contain ingredients like chlorhexidine, which helps kill the bacteria and yeast that cause hot spots.

What About Severe Hot Spot Cases?

In cases where the infection is severe, your dog may require an appointment with a veterinarian to have the hot spot professionally clipped, cleaned, and disinfected.

Larger and more stubborn hot spots might mean your dog needs oral antibiotics prescribed by a veterinarian. It is also important to make sure your dog doesn’t lick or scratch the hot spot, as scratching and licking usually aggravate the inflamed skin and makes the infection worse.

If the hot spot is on the dog’s legs, you can bandage them as this will prevent licking and scratching. If the hot spot is on the neck or face, a coned collar can help prevent scratching while the hot spot heals.

How Do I Prevent Hot Spots from Occurring?

Hot spots can be avoided by following proper hygiene practices. Make sure you thoroughly dry your dog whenever they get wet. Whether your dog was swimming and splashing in a lake or stream, or they just had a bath, making sure the fur and skin are as dry as possible will really help. You can use a standard blow dryer as this will help you make sure the undercoat is dried.

If your dog has been swimming in a lake, pond, or stream, it is usually a good idea to give the dog a bath when you get home, as these bodies of water usually contain the bacteria and yeast that cause hot spots.

Bathing the dog will help rinse away any yeast that could get trapped along the surface, and this will help prevent new hot spots from forming. After you bathe your dog, make sure you dry them properly.

Final Words

While they can certainly look quite alarming and cause a significant amount of discomfort for your pooch, the good news is hot spots are relatively easy to treat. The main thing is making sure you address hot spot issues properly and promptly. The sooner they are treated, the better chance the skin will have of healing correctly.

For more information on hot spots, and other common skin issues, check out these helpful articles: 

We also encourage you to book an appointment to speak with a veterinarian if your dog is experiencing skin issues. Hello Ralphie vets can assess your dog’s condition and give you an idea of what treatment should look like at home, and whether a clinic visit is needed. 

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