Category Archives: DogWatch Articles

DogWatch is a canine health newsletter published by Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine. Debbie Slevin was the columnist behind “It’s a Dog’s Life,” conversations with Nini, a 12 year old Cairn terrier. She also wrote many feature pieces about canine health, behavior, and well-being.

Cure For Hotspots

My favorite dog

My Sadie.
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.”

2003 DogWatch

claiming the bed

Canine Aging

picture of dog

Favorite Pup: Casey
photo credit: Debbie Slevin

I learned something new recently: those hard black protrusions at the end of my paws that I, in my domesticated lifestyle, have always thought of as nails are actually claws. It’s a touch animalistic, but since we canines see ourselves as the most superior of man’s friends in the animal kingdom, it gives me a sense of my true wilderness nature to think I possessing a fine set of claws.

It is important to do a regular inspection of our paws and claws. Personally, I am fond of the occasional pedicure. Being a dog who mostly romps in the yard or runs along a woodsy path, I seldom exercises on concrete, so my nails, (oops!) claws need to be trimmed with regularity. City dogs will find that the sidewalk can keep claws at a desirable length, while some of us add it to our regular routine at the groomer.

Your caretaker should examine your paws carefully in search of swelling, flaking, or imbedded debris and report any abnormalities to the veterinarian. Dr. William Miller, Professor of Dermatology at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says the most common problem is onychorrhexis. This is a term used to describe claws that are dry, brittle, and crumbly. Your veterinarian can determine if this condition is indicative of systemic disease, nutritional deficiencies, and/or hormonal imbalances, or is a result of a localized problem such as trauma, fungal infection, or tumor.

“When dealing with claw disease,” says Dr. Miller, “the first point to be decided is whether one claw, a claw/paw, or multiple claws on multiple paws are involved. If only one claw is affected [we would focus] on a local event. If there is one claw affected on both front feet, trauma secondary to digging might be appropriate. When there are multiple claws on multiple paws involved, systemic diseases need to be considered.”

In cases of nutritional deficiencies, endocrine disorders and auto-immune diseases, the dog’s skin may also be involved, which make diagnosis easier. But, Dr. Miller points out that onychorrhexis due to nutritional deficiency looks very similar to onychorhexis due to autoimmune disease, so diagnostic testing must be performed. A biopsy can reveal what disease is present and the best course of treatment.

Another condition of the claw is paronychia. “Paronychia means inflammation or infection of the claw fold, not a disease,” says Dr. Nina Shoulberg, MS, DVM,DACVD. There are multiple causes of paronchia including bacterial and fungal infections, neoplasia, trauma, demodex, and immune mediated disorders.

Dr. Miller cautions that if multiple claws are involved, a veterinarian will look for underlying immunodeficiencies, the sterile pyogranuloma syndrome, or specific claw diseases. “Dogs with widespread onychorrhexis will have a secondary bacterial paronychia,” says Miller. “If you treat the infection but ignore its underlying cause, the infection either won’t respond to treatment or the infection will recur shortly after treatment is stopped.”

A dog’s behavior can be an important tool for an aware companion. Behaviorist Dr. Ellen Lindell, Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, says that any changes in your dog’s behavior such as no longer jumping on or off a bed, avoiding certain surfaces and refusal to jump on command could be indications of a claw problem. “If a dog is in pain, as with most nailbed conditions, there could be aggressive behavior secondary to the pain,” says Dr. Lindell.

Our veterinarians agree: proper trimming and nutrition is essential. Dr. Miller recommends painting the diseased nails with clear polish, and Dr. Shoulberg suggests acrylic nail cement for idiopathic onychorrhexis. She says “for brittle nails, try 1 pack Knox gelatin per 7 kg of weight every 24 hours.”

And all this time, I thought the only things I needed to know about my claws were that they were great for digging a hole to hide my favorite toy, a terrific way to get that little morsel of popcorn that rolled under the TV stand, and the most satisfying way get to that little place on the back of my neck, just behind my ear. And ah…that feels so good!

February 2003 DogWatch

picture of dog

Brittle Nails

I learned something new recently: those hard black protrusions at the end of my paws that I, in my domesticated lifestyle, have always thought of as nails are actually claws. It’s a touch animalistic, but since we canines see ourselves as the most superior of man’s friends in the animal kingdom, it gives me a sense of my true wilderness nature to think I possessing a fine set of claws.

It is important to do a regular inspection of our paws and claws. Personally, I am fond of the occasional pedicure. Being a dog who mostly romps in the yard or runs along a woodsy path, I seldom exercises on concrete, so my nails, (oops!) claws need to be trimmed with regularity. City dogs will find that the sidewalk can keep claws at a desirable length, while some of us add it to our regular routine at the groomer.

Your caretaker should examine your paws carefully in search of swelling, flaking, or imbedded debris and report any abnormalities to the veterinarian. Dr. William Miller, Professor of Dermatology at Cornell’s College of Veterinary Medicine, says the most common problem is onychorrhexis. This is a term used to describe claws that are dry, brittle, and crumbly. Your veterinarian can determine if this condition is indicative of systemic disease, nutritional deficiencies, and/or hormonal imbalances, or is a result of a localized problem such as trauma, fungal infection, or tumor.

“When dealing with claw disease,” says Dr. Miller, “the first point to be decided is whether one claw, a claw/paw, or multiple claws on multiple paws are involved. If only one claw is affected [we would focus] on a local event. If there is one claw affected on both front feet, trauma secondary to digging might be appropriate. When there are multiple claws on multiple paws involved, systemic diseases need to be considered.”

In cases of nutritional deficiencies, endocrine disorders and auto-immune diseases, the dog’s skin may also be involved, which make diagnosis easier. But, Dr. Miller points out that onychorrhexis due to nutritional deficiency looks very similar to onychorhexis due to autoimmune disease, so diagnostic testing must be performed. A biopsy can reveal what disease is present and the best course of treatment.

Another condition of the claw is paronychia. “Paronychia means inflammation or infection of the claw fold, not a disease,” says Dr. Nina Shoulberg, MS, DVM,DACVD. There are multiple causes of paronchia including bacterial and fungal infections, neoplasia, trauma, demodex, and immune mediated disorders.

Dr. Miller cautions that if multiple claws are involved, a veterinarian will look for underlying immunodeficiencies, the sterile pyogranuloma syndrome, or specific claw diseases. “Dogs with widespread onychorrhexis will have a secondary bacterial paronychia,” says Miller. “If you treat the infection but ignore its underlying cause, the infection either won’t respond to treatment or the infection will recur shortly after treatment is stopped.”

A dog’s behavior can be an important tool for an aware companion. Behaviorist Dr. Ellen Lindell, Diplomate, American College of Veterinary Behaviorists, says that any changes in your dog’s behavior such as no longer jumping on or off a bed, avoiding certain surfaces and refusal to jump on command could be indications of a claw problem. “If a dog is in pain, as with most nailbed conditions, there could be aggressive behavior secondary to the pain,” says Dr. Lindell.

Our veterinarians agree: proper trimming and nutrition is essential. Dr. Miller recommends painting the diseased nails with clear polish, and Dr. Shoulberg suggests acrylic nail cement for idiopathic onychorrhexis. She says “for brittle nails, try 1 pack Knox gelatin per 7 kg of weight every 24 hours.”

And all this time, I thought the only things I needed to know about my claws were that they were great for digging a hole to hide my favorite toy, a terrific way to get that little morsel of popcorn that rolled under the TV stand, and the most satisfying way get to that little place on the back of my neck, just behind my ear. And ah…that feels so good!

March 2003 DogWatch

picture of dog

The Beach Dogs

You’ve seen it in commercials, you’ve embraced it on film: A man jogs down the beach at dawn, his trusty retriever darting in and out of the foamy waves that lap the shore line. A woman strolls languorously through the receding water against a crimson sunset, damp pants rolled above her ankles, as her faithful terrier paws a feisty crab. Some one watches longingly from the porch with a coffee mug/wine glass/margarita in hand. It is the Beach Dog Fantasy.

The reality is that both dawn and dusk are fine times to stroll with your dog on the beach, and often the times that many public beaches allow off-leash dogs. But there are a number of dos and don’ts for beach-bound canines. The first is to know the beach rules, which are usually posted at the access point or are available by calling the municipality. “From September 15 to May 15, no special permit is needed,” says Dr. Kim Traugott of the Veterinary Clinic of East Hampton, NY, where the rich and famous often come to summer with their pets. But from Memorial weekend to Labor Day, it is the responsibility of the owner to be aware of regulations or pay fines for negligence.

Once you hit the sand, there are several precautions to take. Adequate water and shade is required during hot summer days to prevent sunstroke and dehydration. And “dogs can get sunburn,” says Dr. Traugott. “Whenever nonpigmented, unhaired skin is exposed to sunlight, radiation damage can occur. Topical sunscreens can be used on the nose, tips of ears, and unhaired skin.” She recommends sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or greater, applied 3-4 times a day.

“Dietary indiscretion is also a problem, as some dogs view a trip to the beach as a seafood buffet…[they] will eat sand and end up with a sand impaction or sand colic. These conditions are usually treated with fluids and Laxaire (a petroleum-based product also used for hairballs in cats,” says Dr. Traugott. “Drinking saltwater can cause diarrhea, vomiting, and in extreme cases, salt poisoning which can lead to seizures.” If that isn’t enough to daunt you, parasites, such as fleas and ticks, are also an issue, as are intestinal parasites that are transmitted by feces.

“A point of concern,” says William H. Miller, Jr, VMD DACVD, Professor of Dermatology at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine “is when a dog spends lots of time in the water each day… [they] frequently end up with a dry coat and dark coat colors will bleach out. The only way to prevent this is to stop the swimming. Some swimmers will get ‘swimmers ear’ – an otitis externa usually due to Malassezia yeast overgrowth. [This] infection can be prevented by cleaning the ears frequently with an acid pH ear solution [or] anti-yeast medications but the response to treatment often becomes less rewarding as the number of infections increases. In these cases, the swimming must be stopped or the dog is a candidate for ear surgery.”

Enjoying the fresh ocean air together, humans and dogs sustain similar beach injuries such as stepping on glass, corneal ulceration from vigorous play (a thrown stick in the eye), and conjunctivitis from sand in the eyes. There has also been the occasional fishhook through the face. Dr. Traugott cautions owners not to try and remove the hook, but to seek veterinary intervention, because some dogs may require sedation for safe removal.

Good canine social behavior will also enhance the experience for all parties involved. Behavorist Dr. Katherine Houpt of the Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine says an aggressive dog should never be allowed off leash in a public area and even “if the dog is non-aggressive, a leash should be with you at all times in case you need to restrain the animal from people who are frightened. Non-aggressive dogs may not listen to verbal commands when they are surrounded by others… Social dominance/submissive and sexual behaviors are likely to surface and access to people, food, the ocean, and other dogs will most likely cause a high arousal state. This may result in mild to severe dog fights,” says Dr. Houpt. “A dog may exhibit certain behaviors within a group, i.e. aggression, barking, chasing or mounting that it may not exhibit when alone.” She also points out that if you are worried about your dog’s safety in the water, a harness will allow you to pull him out without injuring him. It is also not appropriate to bring a female in heat.

So, if that fantasy of playing on the beach with your favorite canine friend, as the sun glistens on the horizon and the gulls swoop low over the whitecaps still lingers, remember that with just a few precautions, it is safe to go into the water!

Originally published June 1st, 2005 on DogWatch Newsletter, Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine