As I’ve walked along the bike path, I’ve always thought it rich with urinary herbs. Juniper, Goldenrod, Dandelion, Couch Grass… all seem to have such a presence, there. But on a recent herb walk (for dogs) that I gave on a sunny Saturday morning, I found myself mentioning hot spots over and over. Hm. Purslane and Sweet Leaf and Burdock and Rose and Red Clover and Plantain and Yellow Dock… Aaaah, the dog days of August, and the heat that comes with them! If we consider hot spots from the perspective of energetics, it is a damp heat condition. Hot spots are, essentially, eczema, and the challenge in treating them is that they may arise from a wide variety of reasons, depending on the individual.
Diet really is #1, here. I know that I talk about food a lot, but humor me and take a peek at the ingredient panel on your dog’s bag or can of food. In my experience, grains have been the most common culprit with hot spots. So many dogs that I have seen with skin issues have cleared up completely with merely a food switch. Hell, I battled with my own hot spots until I changed my diet! (Seriously. I finally realized that my eczema was triggered by gluten and other dietary indiscretions.) What the body sees as impure, it will push out.
We often think of the epidermis as an organ (or system) of absorption – and it is (which is why you should never put anything on your dog’s skin that you wouldn’t put in his mouth) – but it serves also as an organ of elimination. This means that impurities that are not eliminated through the colon or kidneys are often pushed outward, through the skin. We have come to expect that we can simply smear a cream on an external condition and it will disappear. While that may be so for ringworm or staph, hot spots are actually an outward symptom of a heat condition originating much deeper in the dog’s body. If we use the analogy of the hot spot as a chimney, then by applying a steroidal cream or anti-inflammatory, you are closing the damper and the heat is left down there to simmer, going deeper into the body or seeking other outlets. Instead, we want to ensure that the channels of elimination are open so that the heat may be released while we address the underlying issue that is causing the fire in the first place.
Aiding the liver, kidneys, and colon in their attempts to eliminate is always a good place to start. The Docks (Burdock and Yellow Dock) are considered premier blood and skin cleansers – but they do so by stimulating the liver to function more effectively, which is why they are so effective in chronic and hepatic skin conditions. Burdock seeds have a diuretic action which helps to eliminate waste from the kidneys, taking some of the burden off of the liver and enhancing the elimination of all wastes. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, tincture of the seeds is used topically for psoriasis, chronic sores, and other skin issues. Yellow Dock stimulates peristalsis in the lower digestive tract, aiding in elimination through the colon. Yellow Dock is also very specific as a fire reducer in the body. Dandelion, used in its whole form, is also excellent for keeping the channels cleansed and primed. Red Clover acts as a blood cleanser, although it doesn’t clean the blood as much as nourish it to a healthy state. Regardless, keeping everything moving along is the goal, and it’s great for chronic skin issues – especially hot spots. Another plant that is excellent for internal use with hot spots is Sweet Leaf, because it acts to diffuse the heat. Where there is internal heat, Sweet Leaf will drive the heat to the surface.
And so, while we’re addressing the condition from the inside (identifying possible triggers like food and diffusing heat in the system), we also want to provide some relief at the site of the hot spot. (This detoxification process may bring more sludge to the surface, exacerbating the condition and, while it’s good to see evidence of the heat and invaders being flushed out, it is obviously uncomfortable for the dog, and we want to relieve the hot, damp itching that the dog just wants to gnaw furiously… making it hotter, damper, and more itchy.) The first plant that most herbalists think of for any hot, itching, skin lesion is Plantain. This is a very cooling plant which will pull the heat up and out of the body. If you have a clean source of Plantain, you can use the leaves right on the hot spot. I was taught to chew the leaves just enough to get them mushy, then apply it right to the spot. Purslane, another very cooling plant, is great for hot skin conditions and may be used similarly. It’s always a good idea to keep the area around the spot(s) trimmed – especially with longer-haired dogs. This is especially pertinent if you have a swimmer, and the coat stays damp against the skin for extended periods.
These are just some of the plants most useful for hot spots that are growing on the bike path between Davis Sq and Willow. Of course, there are plenty of other plants that are applicable (Aloe Vera is a good one for hot spots, as is Chickweed). Some suggest Tea Tree Oil, and I have used it in a very diluted form, but I prefer to err on the side of caution when using any essential oils (especially Tea Tree) with dogs, and I would never apply it to an open sore. Mixing up a spray of ½ water and ½ apple cider vinegar is simple and very effective at drying up and reducing the spots. Cambridge Naturals has both the spray bottles and the apple cider vinegar. Even better if the apple cider vinegar is infused with Yellow Dock (…which you can also get at Cambridge Naturals).
As with all health conditions, a full assessment of the whole dog should be made in order to determine the organ system most in need of support, and then determining the herbs most appropriate for that organ system and the energetics involved.