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Hot Spots on Pets

Hot spots are a common complaint from many pet owners. These irritated patches of skin can appear seemingly out of nowhere and can rapidly develop into painful, infected sores. Treatment and prevention are possible, but discovering the cause of the hot spot can be frustrating.

Knowing what to do when a hot spot occurs will prevent unnecessary pain and distress for your furry friend, and help them on their way to a speedy recovery.

What are hot spots?

Also known as ‘moist dermatitis’, hot spots are essentially localized bacterial infections of the skin. In most cases, this starts with irritation to the skin, such as a bite or allergic reaction. As your pet scratches or bites the area, the skin is broken, allowing bacteria to enter. The resulting infection will cause the skin to become inflamed and irritated further, which leads more scratching, licking or biting and more bacteria entering the skin. As the cycle continues, open oozing sores will develop and scab over, and hair loss occurs. Though not life-threatening, hot spots can be very painful and upsetting for your pet and can cause damage to the skin if not treated.

Your pet does not need to be exposed to any particular bacteria to develop a hot spot. In most cases, the infection is caused by the natural bacteria that already exists on your pet’s skin or in their saliva.

Symptoms of hot spots

As with many skin conditions, the symptoms of hot spots can be quite non-specific and can be confused with other issues. However, as an owner, you should be on the lookout for the following signs, particularly when occurring together.

Hot spots usually occur on an animal’s head, hips or chest. This is partly because it can be easier for your dog or cat to reach these areas, and partly because they retain more body heat here. Usually, the first visible sign is a red spot about the size of a coin that appears inflamed and irritated.

These smaller spots can quickly develop into larger sores, even within a few hours.  These sores will be warm to the touch – hence the name ‘hot spot’ – and will begin to exude pus as the infection progresses. During this cycle, you may notice the skin in the area will remain moist and the fur will become matted. As the sores scab over you may see significant hair loss.

Behavioral symptoms can also indicate the presence of hot spots. The most obvious of these is that your pet will continually lick, scratch or bite at the same patch of skin. This is both a symptom of the hot spot and the initial cause of the infection. As hot spots can be painful distressing for your animal, they may become depressed or show signs of unusual aggression.

What causes hot spots?

The hot spot itself is caused by your dog or cat persistently scratching, licking or biting the skin, creating traumatized tissue that can become infected. Although this irritation and infection can be treated easily, you will need to diagnose the underlying issue that is causing your pet irritation in the first place.

Food sensitivities– just like humans, pets can develop sensitivities or allergies to anything they eat. Common troublemakers include beef, dairy, chicken, and wheat, but even seemingly safe foods like vegetables can cause a reaction in some animals.

Seasonal allergies–pollen, dust, and spores can all cause allergies in pets, particularly outdoor dogs and cats.

Contact allergies – owners should be aware of the products that come into contact with their pets’ skin on a regular basis. The obvious culprits are shampoos and medications, but even washing a dog bed or carpet with scented products can irritate the skin.

Flea allergy dermatitisFAD is a very common cause of hot spots. Some animals develop a sensitivity to flea saliva, which causes extreme irritation beyond the normal itching associated with flea bites.

Parasites – along with fleas, a whole host of parasites can lead to hot spots, including scabies, mites, lice, and mosquitoes.

Pain (especially in joints) – if an animal has a joint problem such as arthritis or hip dysplasia, the pain may cause them to lick continuously at the area of skin over the joint, eventually causing a hot spot.

Bacteria – as well as being one of the symptoms of a hot spot, a bacterial infection can also be the initial cause of the irritation to your pet’s skin. This is particularly true of pets with thick undercoats that keep the skin warm and moist.

Stress or boredom – some animals may bite or scratch at the skin through boredom or anxiety, even if there is no irritation in the area.

Risk factors

Hot spots can develop on any animal at any time, however, there are some factors that may make your pet more susceptible.

  • Among dogs, Golden Retrievers, German Shepherds, Labradors, St Bernards and Rottweilers have been shown to be more at risk.
  • Animals with a long or heavy coat that restricts airflow to the skin.
  • Pets with a history of flea allergies.
  • Humid climates – moist air is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria.
  • Spring and summer – during this time there is an increasing environmental allergen, increased parasites activity, and often warmer or more humid weather.


Treating the hot spot
Regardless of the cause, the affected skin will need to be properly treated to give your pet relief from pain and irritation, and to allow the area to heal. First, you must allow air to reach the skin, as trapped moisture exacerbates the problem. This is usually done by cutting or shaving the hair around the hot spot. Then, clean the skin carefully with a medicated shampoo or topical treatment. You will need to prevent your dog or cat from touching, biting or licking the area while it heals. You may need to relieve the itching with topical treatments or antihistamines, or your vet may prescribe a course of corticosteroids. Another option is to use a cone (or Elizabethan collar) to physically prevent your pet from reaching the skin. Keeping the skin clean and dry will help to clear any infection, but you can promote healing with regular applications of wound care ointment or products specifically made for most skin conditions.    

Diagnosing the cause
Figuring out what has triggered the initial irritation to your pet is not necessarily needed in order to be treating the damaged skin. However, without diagnosing the underlying cause, further hot spots may develop. Furthermore, if the hot spots have been caused by parasites such as scabies, these can spread to other pets if not eradicated.


Due to the wide range of reasons that an animal can develop hot spots, prevention is not a one size fits all solution. However, there are some steps you can take to see that your pet has the best chance of avoiding this painful skin condition.

Regular grooming – although a hot spot does not necessarily sign of poor hygiene, keeping your dog or cat clean can be helpful. Bathing with medicated shampoo can help prevent the buildup of bacteria, and keeping long coats combed or even trimmed short will aid with air circulation. With this in mind, make sure your pet is well dried after bathing or swimming.

Parasite prevention – a number of parasites can be the initial trigger for a hot spot, so protecting your pet from bites, irritation, and flea allergy dermatitis will stop the initial itch.

Physical and mental stimulation – bored or stressed animals (particularly dogs) are more likely to excessively groom or scratch, so by providing plenty of exercise and entertainment, you can help prevent the hot spot cycle.

When to see a vet

In theory, simple hot spots may be treated at home. However, if the infection does not begin to improve within a couple of days or if you are concerned about the underlying cause, it’s time to see the vet. Be aware that a hot spot will not resolve without treatment, so if you choose not to see a vet you will still need to treat it yourself.

In the first instance, your vet will advise of how serious the hot spot. An animal in extreme pain may need to be anesthetized before the area can be shaved and cleaned. Where the skin has become very infected, the vet may need to extract pus from the wound. Depending on the severity of the infection, your vet can prescribe medications that you cannot buy over the counter. This includes painkillers, corticosteroids to help with itching and inflammation, or antibiotics to help clear the infection.

Finally, your vet can also help to identify the underlying cause of the hot spot, which may require additional treatment. Where the hot spot has been triggered by parasites, your vet will recommend appropriate antiparasitic medications. In the case of hot spots caused by the pain of arthritis, your pet will need a care plan to provide joint support and pain relief.

Hot Spots on Pets

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