by Cate Burnette, RVT
That open sore on your dog’s skin that he constantly licks and gnaws is called a lick granuloma, or a “hot spot.” Characterized by a lack of hair and irritated skin, a hot spot starts with a small, but noticeable patch of red, shiny skin. These lesions, called “acral” lick granulomas when found on your dog’s ankles or wrists, can occasionally be found on the flanks, the tail, or in the groin area.
As your pooch continues to lick at that spot, the skin becomes infected and ulcerated, typically oozing a clear liquid called an “exudate.” As the problem worsens with constant licking, nerve endings in the lesion become inflamed and extremely pruritic (itchy), to the point where your pooch CAN’T stop licking. By this point, the cyclical condition is chronic, and extremely difficult to control and cure.
Eventually, through continuous licking, the skin becomes thick, hard, raised, and unresponsive to pressure. The wound remains moist and can break into open, bloody sores because of the licking. Without treatment, the hot spot can continue to grow larger and larger, until quite a bit of hair is gone and the lesion becomes infected.
What causes hot spots on my dog?
Anything that can cause your dog to lick obsessively can create hot spots on his skin. These factors include:
Boredom or Stress – For a long time, veterinarians thought that hot spots were a way to relieve boredom for inactive, under-exercised dogs. Most commonly seen in large, shorthaired dogs like the Doberman pinscher, Labrador retriever, certain bird dog breeds, and Great Danes, it is typically the Dobies and the Danes that lick for this reason creating the problem.
Allergic dermatitis – Related to food allergies or airborne allergies, the skin itching and licking becomes chronic if the allergy is not alleviated.
Arthritis – If the joints in the area of the lesion are painful, dogs will often lick at them as a way to relieve pain.
Neuropathies – This inflammation of nerve endings just under the skin can be caused by trauma or disease, with the resulting pain causing a dog to begin licking.
Ectoparasites and Fungal Infections – Mange mites, fleabite allergies, and even ringworm can initiate the itching that leads to a hot spot.
How does the vet diagnose and treat the hot spot?
Because they see so many of them, many veterinarians will identify a lick granuloma just using a physical examination. The predisposition of certain breeds to hot spots, like the ones mentioned earlier, and the age of the dog are factored into the diagnosis. If your dog is older than 5 years of age and a German shepherd, boxer, Dalmatian, shar pei, or Weimaraner, hot spots can be a common occurrence.
Veterinary testing often includes scraping the skin to look for parasites, fungal cultures to check for ringworm, and a skin biopsy or fine needle aspiration to determine if skin tumors are the cause. Your vet may also want to test your pet for allergies if he or she suspects that is the cause of the problem.
Veterinary treatment typically revolves around long-term use of antibiotics to deal with any secondary infection, and corticosteroids to minimize swelling and licking. Depending on the cause of the itching, your pooch may be placed on anti-fungal medications, allergy shots, and/or topical medicines to ease the itching and the pain.
All of these treatments, if used long-term, can have side effects that potentially harm your dog. Many holistic veterinarians are now recommending all-natural, organic skin products to help shorten the length of medical dosing, to help heal the open sores, and to decrease the chances of lick granulomas reappearing once they’re gone.
What natural ingredients can I use on my dog to stop the licking and itching?
Many natural pet products contain herbal components and organic compounds that can help stop itching, and cease the incessant licking that causes hot spots.
Colloidal oatmeal, an ingredient in some organic, all-natural canine shampoos, has been shown to soothe inflamed, itching skin, while sealing in moisture to protect hair and skin cells. By including oat solids in a liquid suspension, these shampoos can provide quick, long-lasting relief.
Grapefruit seed extract found in some anti-itch sprays, is known for its anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties. By spraying an organic anti-itch spray directly on the hot spot, you can bring immediate, fast-acting relief, reduce inflammation, and prevent serious skin infections.
Shea butter in an ultra-rich conditioning treatment can reestablish hair growth, moisturize dry, flaky skin, and restore softness and shine to damaged hair coats.
Please note: See your veterinarian if your pooch shows any signs of a lick granuloma to avoid possible skin infections.