Hot Spots on Cats

Barri J. Morrison, DVM
Published: March 9, 2023
 Hot Spots on Cats

What Are Hot Spots on Cats?

Hot spots are superficial skin infections that are caused by a cat licking, chewing, scratching, or biting at the skin’s surface. Cats have a normal amount of bacteria, yeast, and fungus on the skin. When the skin is disturbed or irritated by a cat’s actions, it causes the bacteria to overpopulate, creating a skin infection called a pyoderma.

The terms “acute moist dermatitis” and “pyotraumatic dermatitis” are often used to describe hot spots on cats. Long-haired cats and those with thicker coats may be more likely to get hot spots because they have a higher chance for inciting factors to get trapped under the coat and irritate the skin.

Hot spots are more common during hot, humid summer months but can occur year-round, depending on the inciting cause. Hot spots are commonly found on a cat’s face/chin, belly, or base of the tail, although they can be on any part of the body. These skin lesions are often painful and should be treated by your veterinarian as soon as possible.

Symptoms of Hot Spots on Cats

A hot spot–induced skin infection is initially moist, itchy, and inflamed, usually causing the skin in the area to turn red with or without hair loss. The infection then leads to pus formation, causing the wound to become more wet. The moisture is then trapped in the remaining hair, causing mats to form on top of the wound.

The pus will dry and the damaged skin will adhere to this infection site, causing a crusty, moist bed of infection that is likely very uncomfortable to your cat. The matted fur will often disguise how severely affected the underlying skin might be. The chewing, biting, or scratching makes the hot spot much worse, so the sooner you can have your cat examined by their vet the better.

Causes of Hot Spots on Cats

While hot spots are more common in hot, humid climates and occur more in the spring and summer, they can happen during any time of year. Bugs or allergies might make your cat itchy year-round, thus causing hot spots. Cats with more dense, heavier hair coats are more likely to develop hot spots, as their saliva gets trapped under the fur and will infect the skin, causing an itch. Multiple species of Staphylococcus bacteria are the most common natural inhabitant on a cat’s skin and are the most common cause of a bacterial skin infection in cats. Staph infections are not usually contagious in cats. Hot spots in cats are caused by a variety of underlying conditions, such as:

Parasites or Insects

Fleas are the most common cause of hot spots on cats. Other parasites, such as mites (e.g., skin mange or ear mites), mosquitoes, or ants, can also cause a cat to scratch or bite in response to the pain or itch, causing a hot spot.

Allergies

Allergies are also a common cause of hot spots in cats. Flea allergies are common in cats and just one tiny flea or microscopic flea egg can cause a cat’s entire body to be incredibly itchy, causing them to self-inflict hot spots. Outdoor cats are exposed to more pollen and environmental causes of allergies and could be at higher risk for developing hot spots.

Stress, Anxiety, or Behavioral Issues

Cats are skilled self-groomers. Any change to a cat’s daily routine or their normal environment can cause them to be stressed, and their stress response is often to overgroom themselves. Overgrooming in cats leads to hair loss and skin infections, which in turn can cause hot spots.

Pain From Trauma, Injury, or Disease

Hot spots in certain areas of the body, such as over the hips or on the hind end, might indicate that your cat is experiencing pain or discomfort. The hips are a common place for arthritis and your cat may chew or bite at the painful area, causing a hot spot. Anal gland disease would also be a reason for your cat to focus on their hind end in a way that might lead first to a wound, then to a hot spot.

In general, a wound or injury anywhere on the body can lead to hot spots, as it takes only a few minutes of your cat chewing, biting, or scratching at the skin for the normal bacteria to overpopulate and a skin infection to begin.

How Veterinarians Diagnose Hot Spots on Cats

Hot spots on cats can often be diagnosed with a physical examination by your veterinarian. While the skin lesion itself might be diagnosed with the naked eye, sometimes it does require diagnostic testing to be able to determine the underlying cause to make sure that the itch or pain does not return.

If it is a primary skin issue, a skin scraping, skin cytology, or skin culture might be needed to isolate the primary bacteria, mite, or fungus causing the issue. If pain is suspected, such as with hot spots over the hips, x-rays might be necessary to look for conditions such as arthritis. It’s important to diagnose both the hot spot and the underlying cause to help prevent the issue from recurring.

Treatment of Hot Spots on Cats

While there are many treatment plans for hot spots on cats, the first step your veterinarian will do is remove all of the hair on and surrounding the lesion. They will use clippers or a special razor to expose the infected skin. Once the hair is gone, the moisture and pus that were trapped behind it can be removed and the skin can be thoroughly cleaned.

This also allows your veterinarian to visualize the extent of the hot spot, which may have had been hidden by the hair and crusting. Since hot spots can be painful, your veterinarian might choose to sedate your cat with pain medication during the cleaning procedure. After the hot spot is clipped and cleaned, your vet can perform testing on the skin, such as cytology, culture, or scraping, to help diagnose the underlying cause.

The skin infection component of a hot spot is often treated with a combination of topical and oral or injectable antibiotics. Topical products, such as wipes, cleansers, mousse, and shampoos, should contain chlorhexidine as the active ingredient, as this is an effective antibacterial agent.

Products for Hot Spots on Cats

Duoxo® S3 is a popular topical product line available over the counter that is great for skin infections and hot spot treatment. For a mite infection, a lime sulfur dip or medicated bathing might be indicated. If the infection is more severe, your veterinarian may prescribed one of the following oral or injectable prescription medications:

If fleas are the cause of your cat’s hot spots and itchy skin, the fleas must be treated with preventatives (e.g., Revolution® Plus, Bravecto®) and/or oral medications such as Capstar®. Your home will also have to be disinfected. Your veterinarian will design a specific treatment plan for your cat, based on their symptoms and the underlying cause of the hot spot.

Recovery and Management of Hot Spots on Cats

A crucial part of healing any skin condition, especially hot spots, is making sure that your cat cannot reach the area to lick, scratch, chew, or bite it. Your cat should not be able to reach this area, as self-inflicted damage is a common cause of unhealed hot spots.

An Elizabethan collar, inflatable collar, or protective shirt will prevent your cat from being able to continue to cause damage to the skin. The goal would be to remove the collar or shirt only after all medications are done and the hot spot is completely healed. It is also never advised to cover your cat’s hot spots with a bandage, as that traps moisture and will not allow the area to heal.

Your veterinarian will give you a timeline for treatment based on your cat’s diagnosis. Hot spots can take weeks to months to heal, depending on the cause. It’s important to finish all medications as prescribed by your veterinarian and to return to the vet’s office for all follow-up appointments in a timely manner, to ensure that your cat is healing properly. It is important that only products safe for pets be used on a cat’s skin, as human products can be toxic to cats. Check with your veterinarian before using any topical products at home for your cat’s hot spot.

Prevention of Hot Spots on Cats

Hot spots can be prevented by staying in tune with your cat’s medical needs. Cats should have regular checkups with their veterinarian, at least once per year. At this appointment, your vet can diagnose and discuss any medical conditions such as allergies, pain, or stress, to make sure these conditions are well managed and not causing behaviors that lead to hot spots.

All cats, even if they do not go outdoors, should be on a regular flea and tick preventative. This is to protect them against both these parasites themselves, which can cause your cat to itch, as well as the diseases they may carry. Your veterinarian will prescribe the best flea and tick prevention for your cat based on its lifestyle, medical conditions, and your location. Keep in mind that hot spots can rapidly progress into a much bigger wound, so it’s important to have them examined by your vet no matter how small they might be.

Featured Image: iStock.com/YinYang


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