photo credit: Debbie Slevin
It can happen in the blink of an eye. Your dog is resting peacefully next to you on the couch while you are watching one of the engrossing new reality shows. You get up to get a snack during the commercial and when you return to catch the end of your program, your dog’s reality catches you by surprise: You notice a red, raw, oozing sore. It’s an acute moist dermatitis. A pyotraumatic dermatitis. A hotspot.
Hotspots appear as single, itchy, lesions resulting from self-inflicted trauma to the skin and can be acute in onset. Dr. William Miller, professor of dermatology at Cornell University Hospital of Animals, says that fleabites are the most prominent cause. The bite is an irritant and the hotspots “are created by the dog from his chewing, scratching, or biting at one spot that is usually tender to the touch.”
Important to Determine Cause
Diagnosis is paramount. Hotspots can be indicators of other diseases, and determining the cause will help you prevent additional spots from occurring. The location of the spot can provide important clues for diagnosis. Miller says that a hot spot on the hip joint could be caused by arthritis. Similarly, a spot on the side of face near the teeth may be an indicator of dental disease. If the hotspot is located near the tail, your veterinarian should check for problems with the dog’s anal sacs.
Watch carefully for signs of fleas, bee stings or insect bites. It is also important to determine the frequency and timing of hotspots. Are they seasonal? Do they occur only after a hike in the woods? Do you notice them after grooming where the dog might have been slipped too closely in certain areas? Have you introduced a new food or shampoo?
With some dogs, the cause may not be readily apparent and your veterinarian can help determine if allergies are involved. If allergies are suspected, the dog can be tested in much the same way as humans- by shaving an area of the dog’s flank and exposing the skin to various irritants, then measuring the reaction. When food allergies are suspected, an elimination diet may be utilized. In rare cases, hotspots can be caused by yeast infections, drug reactions and autoimmune disorders.
More Common in Some Breeds
There seems to be an increased predisposition in certain breeds for hotspots. These breeds are Labrador Retrievers, Golden Retrievers, St. Bernard’s, Collies, and German Shepherds, presumably because they show a higher incidence of allergic reactions in general.
Treatment of hotspots is simple, in most cases, according to Dr. Miller. Clip it. Clean it. Dry it. “When a dog has created a lesion by chewing off most of its hair, a crust can develop. If the hair is in place, infection can occur and there will be the need to clean the are more frequently and use drying medications.” Most spots don’t get infected, but when they do, they must be treated.
Some animals may require treatment with steroids to clear up the inflammation. Only a veterinarian can decide if the dog should be treated topically or systemically. Treatment will vary depending on the case and the size of the lesion, says Miller. “Some animals will leave the spot alone and allow it to heal, others will still be itchy and tender. Then they need to be clipped, cleaned, and dried.”
Hotspots are a manageable condition when humans are vigilant in the care of their favorite canine companions.
Case Study: A Lifelong Program
Lori Unger of Orangeburg, NY, and her Golden Retriever, Aztec, lived with hotspots for many years. Adopted at the age of 18 months, Unger says Aztec had problems from the beginning. “He had one hotspot at a time. About four times a year. He also had other symptoms such as itchy skin, hives and red marks in his groin area. I brought him in to see his regular veterinarian, who suggested a dermatologist who could test him for allergies.”
The doctor did skin testing that involved shaving a part of the dog’s side and testing the skin for reactions to various substances. “Aztec was allergic to just about everything. He had a very definitive response to grasses, leaves, and pollens,” says Unger. “The only thing they didn’t test for was food allergies.”
Aztec was prescribed allergy shots on a weekly basis and this was supplemented with predisone, as needed. With diligent care, the hotspots never became infected and although they never fully disappeared. Unger says Aztec lived a happy life until the age of 10, “but even with shots, he was always plagued with allergies.”
Case Study: A Dog in Need
Catherine Sauvan of Ridgewood, NJ, has seen just about everything from mange to bedsores on the dogs who have called her place home during their short refuge from the often hostile world. Sauvan is an independent animal rescue worker who has harbored many sick and injured dogs during the past 25 years. She remembers Yogi in particular.
“He was a two-year-old German Shepard with severe allergies. By the time he got to me his underbelly was black, cracked and bleeding. There was no hair left, and he had a hotspot on the side of his back leg about the size of a silver dollar.” The spot was almost raw, she remembered. The dog was constantly chewing on it and had chewed off all the hair.
A veterinarian recommended that McKenna out an Elizabethan collar on Yogi to stop him from chewing on the hotspot and to protect his irritated underside. “I shave the area down with a clipper to let the air get it. Since the spot was not infected, it didn’t require a topical antibiotic dream.” Sauvan stresses that it is important to let your veterinarian decide if infection is present, because treatment may vary from case to case. “If there is an infection, and the animal requires a topical treatment, I have collared and crated some dogs for short periods of time to allow the ointment to be absorbed into skin and to prevent having it rubbed off.”
To help Yogi heal, she brushed him daily to aerate the skin, combing the coat first in one direction and then the other with a little metal rake-like tool, to let the air get to the wound.
“I followed this program for about three weeks until the hotspot cleared up and the irritation on his belly subsided,” says Sauvan. “Yogi was eventually healthy enough to be placed in a new home.”