Pet Grooming: How to Handle Matting in Dogs and Cats

By PetMD Editorial on May 8, 2020
white golden retriever lying down with a human brushing them

Reviewed and updated on May 8, 2020, by Katie Grzyb, DVM

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.

Here are some tips for safe ways to remove and prevent matted fur—and when to seek professional help.

Why Pets Get Matted Hair

Here’s a breakdown of the most common reasons why pets get matted hair.

Lack of Proper Grooming

While unsightly and frustrating to deal with, in most cases, matted fur is the result of one common reason—the absence of grooming.

Individual hairs rub together every time your pet moves, says Brooke Strong, a groomer with Reserved Barking in Alexandria, Virginia, 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,” says Strong.

“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 Dr. Stephanie Liff, DVM, medical director of Pure Paws Vet Care in Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York.  

Dr. Liff often finds that in cats, arthritis and general systemic illness will lead to decreased self-grooming and, therefore, matting. Cats with diabetes, cancer, and/or kidney disease are known to have unkempt fur that is more prone to 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.”

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 veterinarian for advice on how to best handle your pet’s grooming based on his or her breed.

Other Causes of Matted Fur

Besides a lack of grooming, a few other factors may cause your pet’s mats to form more easily or to get worse, says Strong.

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.

Strong says that these environmental factors can also lead to an increase in matting:

  • Static electricity

  • Dry climates

  • Winter season

Dangers of Matted Hair in Dogs and Cats

While the effect of mild hair mats is usually minimal, matting can lead to pain and skin infections—similar to hot spots. 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 bedsore-like injuries,” Dr. 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.

How to Remove Fur Mats From Your Pet

A mat—as opposed to just a tangle—CANNOT be combed out. Dr. Liff says, “When removed with combs, you just don’t make enough progress, and the pet will lose patience or be injured by this.”

Here are some tips for dealing with mats on your pet.

Don’t Dampen the Hair

If you’re interested in trying to remove your pet’s mats at home, Dr. Liff suggests starting with a dry pet, since dry hair is often easier to shave.

“Additionally, if the coat becomes wet while it’s matted, the matting will become tighter and more extensive,” says Lopez.

Use the Right Tools

According to Dr. Liff, the best way to remove mats is with clippers. Scissors are not recommended because pets don’t always stand completely still. You 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,” says Dr. Liff.

For cats, she 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.

Take Caution With Clippers

Use clippers that are made for pets and follow the instructions included with the clippers.

Take heed to keep the clipper blades from getting too hot. You should continue to check the metal piece with your hands to make sure it will not burn your pet’s skin. 

Also, make sure the clippers are disinfected after use with an appropriate “clippercide” to avoid bacterial and fungal infections.

Clippers can also cause irritation to the skin, so you should contact your veterinarian if you see any of these:

  • Red, raised bumps

  • Any signs of pain in your pet

  • Bleeding during grooming

Give Your Pet a Bath Afterwards

“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,” Dr. Liff says.

Preventing Matting in Pets

Long-term mat prevention requires proper and consistent grooming practices, so it’s important to keep up with the combing and brushing as needed.

Brush Your Pet Two or Three Times a Week

“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.

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.

De-Matting Sprays Can Help

De-matting 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 that 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 [the spray], if it needs to sit for a certain amount of time to be effective, and if it needs to be rinsed out,” says Strong.

Make Sure the Products are Safe for Your Pet

If you are grooming a cat, Strong says to, “ALWAYS check to make sure the 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.”

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, seek professional grooming help.

“Often pets will not tolerate a lengthy procedure,” Dr. Liff says, “so an experienced groomer may be able to complete the task more quickly without stressing out the pet.”

By: Cheryl Lock

Featured Image: sonsam/iStock / Getty Images Plus via Getty Images

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