Hot Spots (Pyotraumatic Dermatitis) in Dogs and Cats

Date Published: 10/25/2010
Date Reviewed/Revised: 08/04/2020

What are Hot Spots?

When the weather gets warm, we start seeing more dogs with hot spots. These areas are weepy, wet, red and sometimes bloody when they are fresh, and dry and scabby when they are resolving. They can cover large expanses of the pet's skin, appear as solitary lesions, or can appear in multiple locations, but generally have clear margins defining them. The pet creates them through over-zealous self-licking and chewing, and they can arise especially quickly (10 minutes of chewing can create a big one). The good news is that they almost always look worse than they are. The infection is quite superficial and often will resolve with topical treatment alone. The bad news is that about 30 percent of the pets who come to my hospital for hot spots actually have some other kind of skin disease such as deeper skin infection, bite wound or other trauma, or even immune-mediated ulceration. If you aren't entirely sure about what a hot spot looks like, it is probably best to have the veterinarian look at it.

The dog causes the hot spot by self-licking, chewing, scratching and rubbing. What causes the pet to self-chew and lick is another story. She may have an allergy, may have come in contact with an irritating substance, may have irritation from a grooming clipper, or may have some pain in the area from the underlying tissues. Anything that makes the dog itch will make the dog lick and chew, and if the licking and chewing is obsessive enough, a hot spot will soon follow.

First Aid

Treating a hot spot may or may not be a do-it-yourself project. Smaller hot spots can be treated at home with topical products made for this use. The important thing is to be aware that these areas are tender and so the pet may bite if you use something on the area that stings. Also, be careful about using human topical products as these may be toxic to pets when licked. Zinc oxide, for example, can be toxic when licked and is common in many human skin ointments.

Initial treatment usually involves removing the surrounding hair so that the hot spot can be disinfected. Once the superficial infection is properly cleansed, topical products can be used to relieve the associated inflammation. The lesion dries and scabs while it is healing. If the pet is really itchy or there are multiple hot spots, pills or injectable medication become necessary. Hot spots just under the ear/on the facial cheek, for example, are notorious for covering up a deeper skin infection below and often require more extensive treatment, especially in Golden Retrievers. More extensive treatments might include oral corticosteroids and/or oral antibiotics in addition to topical antiseptics and anti-inflammatories.

Good flea control is important for any itchy pet and is the foundation of itch prevention for most dogs and cats. Always use flea control in the approach to any itchy pet.

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