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Dog Hotspot vs. Ringworm: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Two common dog skin disorders are hotspots and ringworm. While both are generally non-life threatening, they can be difficult to tell the difference in some cases and require different treatment modalities. Understanding the difference will ensure you and your pup stay healthy. 

Dog Hotspot vs. Ringworm: Symptoms and Treatment Options

Two common dog skin disorders are hotspots and ringworm. While both are generally non-life threatening, they can be difficult to tell the difference in some cases and require different treatment modalities. Understanding the difference will ensure you and your pup stay healthy. 

By: Dr. Juli, DVM

Like humans, your dog's skin is the largest organ of their body and can be a window to their overall health and wellness. The skin and coat have a variety of functions, including providing a protective barrier against environmental stressors, regulating their body temperature, and providing your dog with its sense of touch. Skin infections or changes in your dog's coat are a common reason pet parents head to their veterinarian.

Because many skin diseases present similarly, bringing your dog for a veterinary exam is critical to ensure you can treat and adequately address the problem. Sometimes, a problem with your dog's skin can indicate a more severe health issue, like a hormonal imbalance. Two common dog skin disorders are hotspots and ringworm. While both are generally non-life threatening, they can be difficult to tell the difference in some cases and require different treatment modalities. Understanding the difference will ensure you and your pup stay healthy. 


Dog Hot Spots 101

What is a dog hotspot?

Many dog owners have experienced sleepless nights from their pup incessantly licking. It's not uncommon to suddenly discover a hot spot on your dog following a night or day of them scratching, licking, or biting at their skin. Dog hot spots, a.k.a. acute moist dermatitis or pyotraumatic dermatitis, are red, painful areas of infected or irritated skin. These dog skin lesions can appear suddenly and quickly and cover a large area of your dog's skin.

In most cases, there may be hair loss or matted fur around or over irritated skin, including oozing or ulcerated skin. Any age, breed, or sex can be affected, and hot spots can occur on any part of your dog's skin. Common areas affected include the neck, limbs, hips, face, and neck.

Additionally, long-coated breeds have an increased risk, including German shepherd dogs, golden retrievers, Saint Bernards, and Bernese mountain dogs. Hot spots can affect your dog during any time of the year but tend to occur more often in the warmer months. 

What are the causes of hot spots in dogs?

Hot spots result from self-trauma from licking, scratching, or biting, leading to a wound on your dog's skin. The process of licking stimulates your dog's superficial nerve endings, which then stimulates your dog to lick, scratch, or bite more, creating a seemingly endless cycle. The result is a red, painful superficial lesion on your dog's skin. However, chronic self-trauma can lead to a deeper, more severe skin lesion and infection.

The occasional scratch or lick is normal dog behavior. However, continued self-trauma is likely due to one of the following underlying hotspot causes:

  • Allergies (i.e., food, fleas, or environmental)
  • Ectoparasites (e.g., fleas, mites)
  • Ear infections
  • Anal gland impaction, irritation, or inflammation
  • Wet skin from swimming, rain, or a bath
  • Poor grooming habits
  • Behavior problems (i.e., boredom, compulsion)
  • Pain due to arthritis or other injuries or disorders

Are dog hot spots contagious to other people or pets? 

Fortunately, hot spots are not contagious to other pets or people. But the underlying cause, kike fleas, could affect other household members, like fleas. Ensuring your dog receives regular veterinary-approved preventive care medication will prevent some underlying hotspot causes. 

What are the signs of hot spots on dogs?

 A dog hot spot can appear similar to other skin lesions, so bring your dog for a veterinary checkup if you notice any problems with their skin. Hot spot signs include:

  • Red, inflamed skin
  • Raised areas of red skin
  • Skin swelling
  • Yellow or green discharge 
  • Foul odor
  • Scabbing areas of skin
  • Hair loss
  • Patches of matted fur
  • Painful when touched
  • Generalized itchy skin

Close up of a pink bald spot showing skin on a dog's white coat

How are dog hot spots treated?

If you notice your dog chronically licking, biting, or scratching an area on their skin, it's critical to stop this behavior to prevent a more severe skin infection. An Elizabethan collar (e-collar), more aptly known as the "cone of shame," is the best defense against skin trauma and will help prevent a deeper infection until you can see your DVM.

A white bulldog wears a soft elizabethan collar or cone around its head

Never attempt to treat your dog's skin infection at home with over-the-counter (OTC) human medications unless your veterinarian advises. Some topical treatments or cleaners can be toxic if ingested or lead to more severe skin irritation. Your veterinarian will check your dog's skin from nose to tail and may recommend additional tests, including blood work, to rule out hormonal causes for hair loss or x-rays to determine if your pet is licking due to painful joints. Allergy testing may also be recommended if your veterinarian suspects allergies are the culprit.

Dogs who experience recurrent ear infections or hot spots may have allergies. Common hot spot treatments may include:

  • Shaving the fur around or over the wound
  • Cleaning with a veterinary disinfectant
  • Topical antibiotic and/or steroid creams applied on the affected area
  • Oral antibiotic medication
  • Oral anti-inflammatory medication or other pain medications

Dog Ringworm 101

What is ringworm?

The name ringworm is a common misnomer because a worm or any crawling parasite does not cause this ailment. Ringworm, also known as dermatophytosis, is a skin disease caused by a collection of fungi. There are a variety of fungal species that can cause dog ringworm, including  Microsporum canis and Microsporum gypseum. The term ringworm is used to describe the round ring appearance on the skin of humans. However, this disease does not always appear circular on a dog's skin. Although ringworm is non-life threatening to dogs, it is highly contagious, can mimic other severe skin issues, and requires veterinary treatment. 

How does my dog get ringworm?

Ringworm is a highly contagious fungal infection that can affect any age, sex, or breed. However, puppies, senior dogs, immunocompromised dogs, or dogs with underlying health issues are most at risk for infection. Ringworm is spread through direct contact with fungus or contact with an infected person, animal, toy, or other objects such as a food bowl. The fungal spores are resilient and can live in the environment for 18 months. Ringworm can also be spread to other dogs through shedding or from broken, infected hair in their environment. 

Is ringworm contagious to other people or pets? 

Ringworm is a zoonotic disease that can be passed from animals to people. The majority of ringworm-causing fungi can infect people and other household pets. If your dog is diagnosed with a ringworm infection, it may be advised to treat all household pets. People who have been diagnosed with ringworm should avoid handling their pets. 

What are the signs of ringworm in dogs?

Unlike hot spots, ringworm is generally not itchy and is not caused by licking or self-trauma. Ringworm infects the outermost skin layer, or epidermis, and occasionally can infect the nails. Affected pets will have circular-type patches of hair loss with inflamed skin. The hair will also appear brittle and dry and break easily.

The inflamed lesions will heal and scab as the fungus spreads throughout the skin. Most dogs will have multiple lesions throughout the body, and some will have brittle claws and fur that easily breaks. Ringworm lesions may appear similar to other skin conditions, like hot spots, or more severe health concerns, like Cushing's disease, hypothyroidism, or allergies. 

How is ringworm diagnosed and treated in dogs?

Bring your dog for a veterinary examination if they show ringworm signs. A skin culture is required to diagnose ringworm infection in dogs, and some dogs may also glow when a special UV light (Wood's lamp) is shown over infected areas. A negative light test does not always rule out ringworm. Treatment is based on severity and may include:

  • Shaving or clipping long hair to prevent further disease spread
  • Oral antifungal medication, like itraconazole
  • Topical antifungal ointment
  • Medicated shampoo
  • Environmental decontamination to prevent reinfection

Affected dogs may require treatment for up to six weeks or until two consecutive negative fungal cultures. Although the infection may appear resolved before six weeks, never stop treatment unless directed by your veterinarian. Dogs are generally contagious for three weeks following aggressive ringworm treatment, and this will be longer if veterinary treatments are not properly administered or followed.

Dalmatian scratches itself with its back leg while sitting on a lawn

How to Prevent Dog Hotspots and Ringworm

Dog hotspots or ringworm infections are not always preventable, but recognizing the signs and bringing your dog for immediate care will ensure a quicker resolution and relief for your pup. You can decrease the chances of them being affected by supporting your dog's skin and overall health with the following:

  • Bring your dog for yearly or more frequent veterinary exams to ensure they remain healthy and to determine if they have any underlying health problems that can affect their skin, like allergies. 
  • Regularly groom and brush your dog's coat to prevent matted fur (this is also a great time to check your dog's skin for infection, lumps, bumps, or parasites).
  • Thoroughly dry your dog after swimming or baths to prevent excess moisture on their skin.
  • Give your dog veterinary prescribed parasite prevention medication to avoid fleas or other itch-causing pests.
  • Ensure your dog receives ample mental and physical exercise to prevent excess licking out of boredom. Puzzle toys or long-lasting chews are great options to keep your dog occupied.
  • Support your dog's skin barrier and overall health with skin-supporting supplements like Omega Oil
  • Provide allergy-prone pups with immune-supporting allergy supplements. Always check with your veterinarian before adding any new food or supplement to your dog's diet. 

For more tips on your pet's health, check out the Native Pet blog.

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