It definitely wasn’t there yesterday. She looked completely normal before bedtime, and now there’s an oozing 3″ sore over her left hip and she won’t let anybody near it. Some dog owners are all too familiar with this story, but if it’s your first time seeing a hot spot, it can be alarming. They appear with astonishing speed, and the nastier ones could easily lead you to think that something terrible is happening.
Ultimately, a hot spot is just a bacterial skin infection. In most cases, there isn’t anything particularly exotic about the bacteria involved—it’s the same staph bacteria that otherwise live peacefully on your dog’s skin every single day. So why are they suddenly staging a violent revolution?
Hate to say it, but it’s kind of your dog’s fault. You know how you aren’t supposed to pop pimples and pick at scabs because it just makes it worse? Hot spots are the result of dogs ignoring that age-old advice. Something drew your dog’s attention to the area, and she was a bit overzealous in responding. All that licking and scratching damaged the skin, giving those otherwise benign bacteria an opportunity to move in. They cause additional pain and irritation, triggering more intense licking and scratching—and more damage. It’s easy to see how this can spiral out of control in a hurry.
So what caused all that fuss to begin with? We don’t always know. If a dog comes in crawling with fleas, it’s easy enough to guess that they’re behind it. But there are dozens of other possibilities. Maybe a splinter burrowed into the skin or a burr got caught in the fur. In most cases, the skin is so badly damaged by the hot spot that any evidence of the inciting cause has been obliterated by the time I see it. But all it takes is some kind of annoyance to start the reaction, and the dog takes care of the rest.
Luckily, hot spots aren’t too hard to manage. The infection is suppressed with an antibiotic, while an anti-inflammatory is used to break the cycle of inflammation. In milder cases, these can be delivered topically in an ointment, but most will require oral medication. The area must also remain clean and dry. Often, this means shaving the fur away, especially in dogs with dense coats that tend to clump up over the hot spot.
It’s also imperative that affected dogs stop making things worse! If they keep tearing up the skin, no amount of medication is going to solve the problem. Sometimes, that means hauling out the old cone of shame. Bandages and wraps might seem like a good idea, but they tend to trap moisture and make these things fester.
Hot spots are hideous, but they’re common and generally easy to treat. Just make sure to get it taken care of quickly. If it can go from zero to nasty overnight, it’s not going to look any prettier tomorrow.
Dr. Mike Fietz is a small-animal veterinarian at Georgetown Veterinary Hospital. He received his veterinary degree from Cornell University in 2003 and has lived in Charlottesville since.
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