As a veterinarian, I (Dr. Perry Jameson) frequently get asked questions about pets from family, friends and anyone else who knows that is my profession.
So I was not surprised when my daughter showed me an Instagram picture of her friend's dog.
Being a close-up, it took me a little while to figure out exactly what I was looking at. Eventually, I realized it was the side of his face. The skin appeared thick, there was missing hair and there were small spots oozing liquid.
I asked her if he was scratching at it and she said yes. My first thought was that this was a hot spot.
Hot spot is a term used to describe a focal skin infection, technically called superficial pyoderma or acute moist dermatitis. The process begins with something irritating the dog's skin making it itchy. They, of course, scratch, lick, chew and rub the area.
Intact skin acts as a barrier and is the body's main mechanism to prevent bacterial infections from occurring. The damage caused from scratching removes the protective barrier, allowing a secondary infection to occur. This results in a red, ugly, oozing sore, which itches even more and thus the dog scratches more, staring a vicious cycle.
Treatment consists of preventing the dog from further traumatizing the area, clearing up the infection and, most importantly, treating whatever caused the itch in the first place.
Unfortunately, there are a lot of problems that can set this in motion and end up as a hot spot. The same allergies to grasses, plants and house dust that cause us to sneeze can cause a dog's skin to itch. Dogs also may develop allergies to food and fleas. Poor grooming, tick or mosquito bites and even warm weather can set into motion the whole process. A long, dense coat may predispose a dog to this problem.
In some cases, dogs will start licking an area for no identifiable reason. This may be a behavioral problem or it could be that the underlying issue is gone by the time the veterinarian evaluates the area.
These lesions are called lick granulomas and are often on the lower part of the leg.
The fact that they will actually chew or scratch until their skin bleeds shows how badly these lesions itch. The desire to scratch overrides the pain they cause to themselves.
If you notice one of these spots, we recommend having it checked out as soon as you can because they are extremely uncomfortable. Treatment involves stopping the self-mutilation in the short term and removing the inciting cause to prevent recurrence in the long term.
Usually the area will be clipped and gently cleaned with an antiseptic. By the time the hot spot has formed, there is a secondary skin infection making the situation worse, so antibiotics are prescribed. Topical or oral steroid medications may be given to decrease the inflammation and thus the urge to scratch. With some pets, an Elizabethan collar (looks like a big lamp shade) may be worn to prevent scratching at lesions on the neck and face or chewing of lesions elsewhere. Depending on the location, a bandage may be applied to prevent access.
Long-term prevention involves keeping your pet's coat and skin healthy. In our area, preventing flea and tick bites is a must. Fleas especially, as they are the No. 1 cause of scratching.
Regular grooming, especially in thick-coated dogs, is necessary to prevent matting. The mats trap moisture, which may alter the skin environment and let an infection occur.
Your veterinarian may investigate and treat allergies to environmental or food antigens. They also may perform skin scrapes to look microscopically for small parasites called mites.
Hot spots are common and may occur anywhere your pet can scratch, chew, bite or rub. Awareness and early intervention can improve your pet's comfort and may prevent these conditions from occurring at all.
Dr. Henri Bianucci and Dr. Perry Jameson are with Veterinary Specialty Care LLC. Send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or veterinaryspecialtycare.com.