‘Hot Spots’ Are Not Just for Nightlife

I’ve written before about atopy, or allergies to inhaled substances (usually pollen.) Atopy is one of those words that describes something very common, but I would bet you’ve not heard the term before. I love picking apart latin roots for words (did you know that the Latin name for humpback whales – megaptera noveagliae – means ‘big-winged New Englander’?) but I have not a clue where atopy comes from. My spell checker doesn’t even recognize it.

In people, atopy usually shows up as the classic signs of hay fever – runny, itchy eyes, the sneezies, drippy nose. You’d think dogs and cats get the same signs, but they don’t. They still get hay fever, and they get it very, very often, but they usually show the signs in different ways. Dogs, the most common sufferers, usually get itchy, smelly ears (the smell is from the yeast that likes to live in the moist and inflamed ear canal) and areas of severe inflammation and infection on their skin called ‘hot spots’. The medical term for a hot spot is ‘acute moist pyotraumatic dermatitis’, but I think hot spot works pretty well for our purposes here! Dogs also chew at their feet – if you’ve ever seen a white poodle with brownish stained feet from chronic chewing, you have probably been in the presence of an allergy sufferer.

Hot spots in particular can make dogs miserable. The ‘hot’ in ‘hot spot’ refers to the inflammation that always accompanies these areas of itchy, painful skin.  The dogs then make matters worse by chewing, biting and scratching at the area, and they set up the region for invasion by bacteria, which then makes the spot more painful and itchy.  It’s easy to see how this cycle can perpetuate itself and lead to a messy, infected and inflamed area of skin. They are not life threatening, but they are one of the few dermatological emergencies that we see – emergency, only because the patients are so miserable and painful.

For severe cases, we need to remove the fur from the area and clean the goo off of the hot spot. This often requires sedation and pain control – having someone run clippers over an area of red and painful skin is not something pets will let us so without some chemical help. We also need to get the inflammation under control, which usually requires cortisone (steroids) either orally, by injection or topically (we usually reserve injections for the more severe cases). Antibiotics also help clear up the Staphylococcus (staph) infection that almost always accompanies these areas, but they have to be given for weeks in many cases. Obviously, breaking the cycle and intervening early can help avoid all of this fuss in many cases, but we often see these cases when they are advanced and need a medical full court press in order to get the pets back to health and comfort.

If the hot spot is the end result of a dog chewing itself silly because of allergies, then what can the pet owner do to help out their itchy, miserable pets? One solution is to move to an area that is devoid of all pollens and natural allergens. Legend has it, this is how Greenland was colonized; legions of European dog lovers, tired of seeing theirs dogs tearing themselves apart due to allergies, headed across the open seas to a sterile and unforgiving wasteland that had no pollen. This leads to happy, itch-free dogs, but bored Europeans. And thus, drinking games were invented! Skol!

For those unwilling to conquer new lands in search of a pollen-free utopia, there are a few more real-world options:

  • Limit exposure to grasses and pollens by keeping dogs indoors as much as possible in spring and summer, and using A/C and HEPA filters to avoid the allergens
  • Watch for early signs of hot spots, since early intervention can help keep these spots from becoming worse
  • Bathe allergic pets regularly in a soothing and hypoallergenic shampoo
  • Talk to your veterinarian about antihistamines and other means of controlling allergies
  • See your veterinarian for severe, painful or recurrent hot spots
  • Consider a visit to a doggy dermatologist for severe or recurrent cases (ask your veterinarian for a referral)
  • Use a topical soothing cream to decrease inflammation on early and small hot spots to keep them from getting worse and growing. Sentry Hot Spot Skin Medication is a good option, and easy to find at pet specialty stores.

With a little knowledge and the right tools and products, you can avoid hot spots and moving to Greenland.

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