Pet Grooming: How to Handle Matting in Dogs and Cats

By Cheryl Lock

Try as you may to keep up with your pet’s grooming needs, chances are you may face a hairy situation from time to time: matted fur. Figuring out how to deal with matted fur can be stressful, especially for pet parents with long-haired animals.

We consulted some experts to determine the best ways to remove and prevent matted fur—and when to seek professional help.

Why Pets Get Matted Hair

While unsightly and frustrating to deal with, in most cases matted fur crops up from a common reason—the absence of grooming. “Pets get matted fur either from having long fur that is not combed out frequently, or in cats it’s more common when they stop grooming themselves due to discomfort or illness,” says Stephanie Liff, DVM, medical director of Pure Paws Vet Care in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York.  

For example, Liff often finds that in cats, arthritis and general systemic illness will lead to decreased self-grooming and, therefore, matting. “In dogs, it’s more often related to lack of appropriate grooming from the owner, though,” she says, as dogs with long or thick coats “rarely self groom effectively.”

Other Causes of Matted Fur

Besides a lack of grooming, a few other things may cause your pet’s mats to form more easily or to get worse, says Brooke Strong, a groomer with Reserved Barking in Alexandria, Virginia. For instance, static electricity, dry climates, and the winter season can all worsen matting, she says. Your pet’s activity level, combined with a lack of care, can also play a factor in matting.

Individual hairs rub together every time your pet moves, says Strong, and unless the coat is short or brushed regularly, mats are bound to form. “The frequency of brushing needed depends on the length of the coat, the coat type (curly vs. straight, soft vs. wiry, etc.), and the activity level of the pet.”

Matted fur is frequently seen in obese pets. If a cat, in particular, is too obese to properly groom herself, she will end up with mats in hard-to-reach areas like across the lower back.

Also keep in mind that non-shedding, long-haired pets, like Poodles or Doodle breeds, or those with a thick undercoat are more prone to matting and, therefore, will likely have extensive grooming needs. Consult your vet for advice on how to best handle your pet’s fur needs, based on his or her breed.

Dangers of Matted Hair in Dogs and Cats

While the effect of mild hair mats is usually minimal, severe matting can cause discomfort, or even damage to the underlying skin or joints, depending on the location. “Sometimes the matting will constrict a limb, and you can even have damage such as deep wounds, swelling of the feet, or bed sore-like injuries,” Liff says.

Matting may also hide underlying problems like fleas and skin conditions, says Valerie Lopez, a professional groomer with the spcaLA grooming salon, so it’s important to take it seriously.

Removing Fur Mats From Your Pet

A mat—as opposed to just a tangle—cannot be combed out. According to Liff, the best way to remove mats is with clippers as opposed to scissors, which could easily cut your pet since mats are stuck so close to the skin’s surface. “Oftentimes when removed with scissors, the skin will be sliced,” she says. “When removed with combs, you just don’t make enough progress, and the pet will lose patience or be injured by this.”

If you’re interested in trying to remove your pet’s mats at home, Liff suggests starting with a dry pet, since dry hair is often easier to shave. For cats, she often finds that using a shedding tool can be helpful, but electric clippers should be your second resort if the shedding tool alone doesn’t work. “Once you’ve removed the mats with a clipper, shampooing and conditioning the coat and then drying thoroughly and combing out the entire coat again can help to prevent recurrence,” Liff says.

Preventing Matting in Pets

Remember, though, that long-term mat prevention requires consistent and good grooming practices, so it’s important to keep up with the combing and brushing as needed. “Dogs and cats with long coats should be brushed two to three times per week, using a slicker brush and metal comb,” Lopez says. “The comb will help the owner find the hidden mats below the top layer of the coat.” Pets with a thick, shedding undercoat benefit from being groomed regularly with a dog rake.

Dematting sprays are helpful as well. “These are leave-in-conditioners that are sprayed or poured over mats to make them easier to loosen and brush out,” Strong says. But keep in mind they are only effective for very loose or small tangles in the hair. “Read directions on individual products to see the best way to apply it, if it needs to sit for a certain amount of time to be effective, and if it needs to be rinsed out. Always check to make sure products are safe to use on cats, as most are formulated for dogs, and always rinse a cat’s coat after using the products. Cats will get sick from licking these products off their coat when they groom themselves.”

If you’re diligent about grooming your pet and you still find yourself dealing with mats, it could be the way you’re grooming that’s the issue. “Brushing the top of the coat will not suffice in keeping your pet free from mats, so it’s important to use a brush with bristles that penetrate the coat down to the skin,” Lopez says. “Additionally, if the coat becomes wet while it’s matted, the matting will become tighter and more extensive.”

Professional Grooming Help For Matted Fur

If you don’t have the correct tools at home (like a good pair of safe clippers), you aren’t sure exactly which shampoos or conditioners are safe for your pet, or you can’t get your pet to sit still long enough to complete the entire process, you might want to seek professional grooming help. “Often pets will not tolerate a lengthy procedure,” Liff says, “so an experienced groomer may be able to complete the task more quickly without stressing out the pet.”

Want to find more ways to properly groom your pet at home? Read these essential DIY tips.

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