How to Treat Your Dog's Hot Spots Without Going to the Vet
What Is a Hot Spot Anyway?
Have you found a wet patch of smelly skin on your dog? If you have and have asked around, your neighbor or your vet tech may have listened to your description and told you that it is a hot spot.
A “hot spot” on a dog is just a warm area of infected skin. It stinks, is painful, red, itches, and usually drains pus.
Hot spots are also known as acute moist pyotraumatic dermatitis. For one of the many reasons listed below, the skin is pruritic (itches), the dog scratches and causes secondary trauma, and the coat traps moisture that allows an opportunistic infection, usually Staphylococcus intermedius. The bacterial infection makes the skin even more uncomfortable and the dog scratches even more, making the infection spread.
This is the conventional treatment, the one that is simplest and almost always works. Always start out with the simplest treatment, the one that has worked most often with the least stress to the dog.
Simplest Treatment for a Dog's Hot Spot
1. Clip the hair around and above the hot spot: You have to clip the hair to prevent it from getting into the wound and making the infection that much worse. Use clippers or scissors and make sure to clip at least a few centimeters all the way around the wound. Be careful when clipping just above the affected area, since the skin is damaged and if you are rough it will make it even harder for your dog to heal.
2. Remove all of the pus from the wound with a moist cotton ball or gauze pad: If you try to clean the wound with pus still on top of it, you are going to grind some of it down into the wound and make things even worse. A little warm water at this point really makes a difference.
3. Get rid of the remaining superficial infection by cleaning the skin with betadine (povidone iodine): Even after you remove the pus from the top of the skin, it is still badly infected, and cleaning it up with betadine helps. (This is not something you have to go out and buy since it is already in your dog´s first aid kit.)
4. Use a mild shampoo to bathe his entire body: There are probably other areas that will develop into hot spots within the next few days, and by bathing your dog you will be cleaning off some of the loose bacteria, removing some of the allergens, and when brushing him afterwards breaking up the trapped balls of hair (some dogs will benefit from a raking brush to remove the undercoat). I like to use a dilute chlorhexidine shampoo, but if you do not have a medicated shampoo on hand any dog shampoo will help.
5. After he is dry, apply a medication that will control the local infection and stop the area from itching: The most effective treatment for an uncomplicated hot spot is a mild steroid/antibiotic cream, like those you can purchase over the counter (If you do not have anything at home, ask your vet if he sells a product over the counter since some of the human creams contain products that your dog may be allergic to). If the dog just licks the cream off or rubs it off on the furniture I have found that an effective solution are the eye drops sold for “pinkeye” in humans. They contain steroids and antibiotics which will reduce itching and heal the skin.
6. You may need to put on an elizabethean collar to keep your dog from reaching back and chewing /licking his irritated skin: Since dogs will turn around and chew on hot spots located along their back or tail head, a collar is the best way to prevent him causing more trauma and making the infection worse. If the hot spot is on his neck this may not do much good.
Use the Simple Treatment Right Away
I live in the tropics so see this skin problem most often on long-haired dog breeds from Europe and Canada. I usually encourage clients to treat this problem at home as soon as possible because if they wait and make an appointment the dog is in pain and the condition will be much worse by the time it is treated. (If the client finds the hot spot in the evening after work, it can be treated three or four times before the next morning, and prevent the dog from being in pain a lot sooner. This is one vital reason that you should treat hot spots without going to the vet.)
Alternative Natural Treatments
The basic steps to treating the hot spot are the same: clip the area, clean the affected skin, and bathe the dog to keep him from developing other spots in areas you cannot see. If you are nervous about applying a steroid and antibiotic to the spot here are some alternatives:
- Organic apple cider vinegar: Bacteria do not thrive in an acidic environment. Apple cider vinegar is mildly acidic, but not so strong as to damage an already traumatized skin. (Which is why you should not use a very acidic product like balsamic vinegar.) If using apple cider vinegar, I recommend that you pour a little on to a cotton ball and apply it to the affected area every few hours the first evening, and then less often as the skin gets better. (This might sting a very sensitive dog, so if your dog gets upset and growls or snaps switch to another method.) It probably also helps to add some of the “mother” from the organic cider to the hot spot since it contains lactobacillus, a bacteria that thrives in the acidic environment, and that bacteria may have a competing effect with the Staph infection.
- Used black tea bags: The tannic acid in black tea inhibits the biofilm development from the Staph infection and makes it more difficult for the Staph to develop a colony on the skin. After preparing the skin by clipping and cleaning, apply a wet tea bag and squeeze the cool liquid over the area. Do not wipe it off. (I know of no studies that have used the vinegar and the tea bags together, so I think you should use one or the other.)
- Corn starch: After applying vinegar or tea, sprinkle corn starch over the area to keep the wound as dry as possible. This is not as important as taking care of the dog´s infection, but it will make him a little more comfortable.
This vet provides some alternatives for treating hot spots that have worked in his practice. The video also shows the clipping and cleaning procedures, so before you start treating your dogs hot spot take a few minutes to watch this.
What Caused My Dog's Hot Spot?
- Flea allergy: This is the most common cause of hot spots in many areas of your dog´s body, especially around the tail. If the dog is allergic to fleas, even one bite will cause intense itching and your dog will start biting at the wound, scratching, and before long he will develop a secondary infection, a hot spot. Even if he is not allergic, enough fleas biting on his rump, where his hair is especially thick, might lead to this problem.
- Allergies: This category covers a lot. If your dog is allergic or sensitive to a specific insect, he might start scratching at a spot and get a secondary infection that shows up as a hot spot. (My Siberian Huskies used to get these infections secondary to tick bites in the summer.) If he is allergic to some pollens or molds, an even larger area can itch and the same thing can happen to his belly, chest, or anywhere else. Your dog might even be allergic to some kinds of food and when scratching his ear or rubbing his face develop a hot spot.
- Ear infection: A lot of dogs with ear infections have allergies, but even if your dog does not have an allergy and develops an ear infection a hot spot is a potential secondary problem. The ear itches, the dog scratches the skin over the canal, and when the skin in broken the bacteria multiply and cause a hot spot.
- Moist and matted coat: Some dogs will present with a hot spot after going for a soak in a pond. I have seen this most often in dogs with thick undercoats like Newfoundlands and Siberian Huskies, so all dogs should be dried after going for a swim in a pond or river. If the pond is very dirty rinse your dog with a hose before drying.
- Arthritis: If your dog is developing recurring hot spots over his hips there is a good chance that he has arthritis secondary to hip dysplasia. He cannot rub on his sore joints so he licks them and the trauma to his skin shows up as a hot spot.
- Behavioral: A stressed or bored dog will sometimes start chewing on himself, damage his own skin, and develop a Staph infection. If you have a smart dog like a Golden Retriever and rarely take him for a walk or participate in obedience classes, a behavioral cause of hot spots is your most likely problem.
The best treatment for my dogs hot spot is:
Preventing Hot Spots on My Dog
If your dog has more than one or two outbreaks of a hot spot, antibiotics and steroids are not the answer. There is an underlying problem that needs to be addressed, so even if you cannot find out the cause of his hot spots there are things you can do to prevent it happening again.
- Switch your dog to a good quality diet: The best diet to keep the skin in great shape, and avoid food allergies secondary to grain based dog food, is a raw diet made up of mostly meat and raw bones. My dogs also get some fresh vegetables and fruit so that their diet is supplemented with some antioxidants.
- Coconut Oil: The saturated fats in coconut oil will reduce your dogs allergic reaction and may be enough to stop the itching/scratching cycle that leads to hot spots. You can apply coconut oil to any active hot spots to benefit from its antibacterial properties, but some dogs will just lick it off so the best way to benefit from it is to give your dog about a teaspoon (for a medium sized dog, so less for a small dog and more for a large or giant dog) on top of his food once a day.
- Vitamin E: This is one of the antioxidants that is important to stop the itching/scratching cycle that leads to hot spots. If your dog is allergic and has recurrent hot spots, poke a hole in a vitamin E capsule and put a drop right on top on his food.
- Omega-3 fatty acids: The essential fatty acids are important to keep your dogs skin in the best condition, and even when you buy a food that claims that it has “fatty acids added” the omega-3 acids are always deficient since they are the most expensive fatty acid. Prevent recurrent hot spots and other skin problems by purchasing and giving a daily dose of a good quality fish oil.
Unfortunately many of fatty acids for sale are cheap plant based formulas and are deficient in omega-3. This product is made up of salmon from cold waters and contains a high level of omega-3 fatty acids, and this is what I use since this type of fish is not available here. To give the proper dose, follow the instructions on the label.
Many skin problems are so serious that they require intensive veterinary care. Fortunately, a hot spot is not usually one of them. If you want to try and treat it at home, go ahead.
Just be sure to get help from your vet if you are not able to cure it using the methods described above, or it keeps coming back despite your best efforts.