Can I treat my dog’s hot spot at home without visiting a vet?
Maybe, depending on its severity. But first, you must be able to spot a hot spot, and identify the underlying cause.
A hot spot is a superficial skin infection that happens when normal skin bacteria overrun the skin’s defenses as a result of damage to its surface. This damage is most often started by a dog chewing, scratching, licking, and gnawing itself. In the first stages of a hot spot’s formation, the skin becomes moist, red, itchy, and infected. Pus begins to ooze from the traumatized skin as infection sets in. Then, the dried pus and damaged skin surface form a tightly adhered crust, and you’ll likely notice hair loss over the infection site. This can be a very painful process, so dogs will usually express discomfort when the area is touched.
Dogs are their own worst enemy when it comes to hot spots. The hot spots can arise surprisingly quickly; a few minutes of “work” can create an impressive area of self-inflicted trauma. The good news is that the spots almost always look worse than they actually are, and infection is usually superficial — often resolving with topical treatment alone.
So, what causes our dogs to chew and lick themselves in the first place? Anything that irritates the skin, causing the dog to chew or scratch at the site, can cause a hot spot. Insect bites (fleas, flies), skin allergies, excess skin-surface moisture, dogs with heavy or dense hair coats, matted hair, saliva accumulation under the fur (think of the pet that’s always licking its feet), skin scrapes, or excessive humidity in the environment can all cause a hot spot to develop.
Veterinary care may be necessary, as the location of the hot spots may help your veterinarian determine the underlying cause of the problem. For example, a hot spot over the hip area could indicate flea infestation, hip arthritis, or an anal gland infection. Similarly, a hot spot near an ear could indicate an ear problem, an allergy, or a dental or nerve irritation.
If the hot spot is small, non-painful, recognized early, and uncomplicated, you may be able to begin treatment at home with over-the-counter products. An array of topical sprays, medicated shampoos, and herbal therapies are available — too expansive a list to include here. The important thing is to ensure that you use a pet-safe product. Call your veterinarian and ask if your choice seems reasonable. Don’t use topical products made for humans, as these may be toxic to pets when licked and ingested. For example, zinc oxide can be toxic to a dog when ingested, and it’s a common carrier in many human skin ointments. That said, here are the basics of home hot spot treatment:
If the area is small and non-painful, carefully and gently clip the fur that’s covering the area — this will allow air and medication to reach the wound. Use approved grooming clippers, not scissors! I see many “accidental lacerations” in the ER because of this.
Keep your pet from licking the area. How? You guessed it: Get out that cone of shame.
Apply a warm, moist compress to the area three times daily for 5 to 10 minutes to keep the area clean, to calm the tissues, and to encourage good circulation. Allow the area to dry fully before applying anything topically.
Use only pet-safe, veterinary-approved, over-the-counter treatments. As always, it’s best to consult with your veterinarian prior to starting any home hot spot treatment.
Don’t place any bandages or wraps over the area — the wound should be able to “breathe.”
Alleviate the itching or irritation that prompted the hot spot in the first place — get to the bottom of the source, or else you’ll be faced with a losing battle.
You can also work to prevent hot spots. One method of dog hot spot prevention I can’t stress enough is appropriate flea control! Good flea control is important for any itchy pet, and it’s the foundation of itch prevention. Otherwise: In hot, humid weather, thoroughly dry your dog after bathing or swimming. Make sure your dog is groomed regularly. Keep boredom and stress at bay by providing adequate exercise and opportunities for mental stimulation and play. And, finally, introduce essential fatty acids into your pet’s diet to help it keep a healthy coat.
About 30 percent of the pets that develop hot spots actually have some other kind of skin disease, such as a deeper infection, a bite wound, or even an immune-mediated disease. If you have any concerns, have your vet assess them.
Another time that veterinary intervention is necessary is when a dog’s hot spot becomes so big and painful that it requires sedation for proper clipping and cleaning.
An additional potential concern is a hot spot accompanied by a deeper skin infection, which could require more extensive therapy, such as oral pain medications, oral anti-inflammatory medications, and oral antibiotics. The treatment your veterinarian chooses will depend on how bad the problem is, how much pain your dog is in, how long the problem has been going on, and whether the problem is a recurring one. Some dogs may get one or two hot spots and then never get another one again (lucky pups!), while some may have frequent recurrences.
Hopefully this information will help take some of the heat off your dog’s hot spots. When in doubt, seek out a vet.