Mats in the Cat can Drive you Bats

A mat can be the opening act for inflammation and even infection.

Published: April 08, 2013
By Phyllis DeGioia, editor Veterinary Partner and VetzInsight

Photo by Phyllis DeGioia
Dickens models a lion cut.

Long-haired cats are beautiful, but their coat takes some extra care that other cats don't need. That long, fine hair can mat easily, causing skin irritations and a snarky yet understandable response by the cat to those irritations. Mats can form after insufficient brushing, but some form in places like armpits while the cat is walking around minding his own business.

Mats are, essentially, tangled clumps of hair akin to dreadlocks. When you pet your cat, you can feel those lumpy clumps. Put yourself in your cat's place. How would you feel if your underarm hair matted into a pulled-too-tight ponytail - the kind that gives you a headache - and you couldn't get rid of it yourself? And even worse, everything you did to make it go away just made it worse? Annoyed doesn't even begin to cover it.

The issue is not merely cosmetic or even just about comfort. A real problem is that a tight clump of tangled hair can prevent oxygen from reaching the skin, so a mat can be the opening act for inflammation and even infection. If a mat gets wet you likely won't be able to brush it out: the water tightens it and blocks even more oxygen, potentially causing some tissue to die off. In extreme cases, that can bring out a main act you don't want to see: maggots. Yeah, disgusting, icky, horrifying maggots can be attracted to dying tissue hidden under the mat.

Obviously it's easier to prevent mats with regular daily grooming, but for those of us who have buckled under to the "I refuse to succumb to brushing" pressure of an annoyed kitty, that's just chasing horses after the barn door is left open. Most of us know we should brush that long coat regularly; we know we should brush teeth daily too, but we don't. Using a deshedding tool once a month makes a big difference. Use it carefully as it is easy to push too hard and cause severe sores on thin and easily cut cat skin, and don't use them too often because that can also irritate the skin. Kitty skin can be as prickly as some cats' temperaments.

Grooming tools such as dematters (which have curved serrated teeth) and wide-toothed combs are good at getting rid of mats. I find a dematter to be a little miracle worker. Flea combs help too. With any tool, it helps if you hold the base of the mat with your fingers so you don't pull the skin. Start by placing your tool of choice where the mat starts forming, near the skin. A pet hair detangler sprayed on the mat can be useful. These implements can be found at your local pet supply store, and many veterinary hospitals carry them, too.

Avoid the temptation of using scissors to cut the mat out. Yeah, many of us do it, but you may end up needing to go to the vet to stitch up a cut. That is far less likely to happen with clippers, but it still happens. Prevention is the most important factor here: If the mat never formed in the first place, you wouldn’t need to risk cutting the skin to get it out. Once it’s there, it’s hard to deal with it without some trauma to the skin.

Five years ago I adopted a 9-month old long-haired cat. The day I brought Dickens home, I put him on his back on my lap and brushed his belly, then brushed his back. I wanted to start out on a good foot and get him used to being brushed. That was the last time he put up with that nonsense. Sadly, not having had a long-haired cat before, I had no clue what to expect the subsequent spring when Dickens began shedding and his coat ended up looking like clumps in a litter box. Seemingly overnight he went from lovely to clumpy. Mats of fine, silky fur multiply like cancer cells; they rapidly morph into a big problem.

My neighbor's long-haired cat loves to be brushed. When she is out of town, Smokey and I lounge around while I run a slicker brush over him. It never fails to blow me away. Smokey has been brushed daily since he came to live with her. Just like Sally Field he likes it, he really likes it.

If you have a severely matted feline who is the cat from hell when it comes to grooming, it's best to take him to the vet to be groomed under anesthesia. (You can try a groomer, but most won't accept cats.) If he is anesthetized, he won't be stressed and the human groomer will come away with intact limbs. Some cats do not mind being shaved and bathed; each cat is different. Some cats can be safely shaved with a mild sedative or a reversible anesthetic. Since he is going to be under anesthesia, you might ask to have a dental cleaning done at the same time if your veterinarian thinks it is a good idea.

Don't let a groomer talk you into anesthetizing your cat at the vet and then transporting it to be groomed; it's a potentially fatal idea. An anesthetized animal needs to be medically monitored.

I ended up taking Dickens to the vet to shave a lion cut using an electric clipper. (A lion cut is exactly what it sounds like: a naked kitty with hair just on his head, feet, and the tip of his tail.) Dickens was so mellow that first time that he was fine without sedation. The next time, he reacted more strongly so things didn't go quite so well. The next spring he had to have a little anesthesia, and then he had a little reaction from the anesthesia, and I decided no more sedation just for clipping.

Since then, a cat-experienced friend holds Dickens while I shave his belly with my electric pet clipper. His belly gets the most mats. He doesn't mind too much if I brush the rest of him once in a while, but he really wants to prevent the outside world from coming into contact with his belly. Perhaps he is concerned about aliens popping out from his chest and would like to call Sigourney Weaver to discuss his fears. (In space, no one can hear you hiss.)

If you are a visual learner, there are plenty of grooming videos online. One comment I saw on a YouTube video plaintively asked why demos for grooming are done on well-behaved animals. "Why don't they show how to deal with an animal that doesn't want to cooperate?" Ah, Truth. Either no one is willing to be filmed while losing a fight with an uncooperative cat, or the ones that flail need a bit of sedation before a clipper comes within ten feet of them.

And more Truth? After the lion cut, before the hair gets long enough to start matting again, regular brushing is the answer. Get little mats out before they become big mats. It's not rocket science, but human nature being what it is, some of us tend to delay it because our cats are not comfortable with it. Also, it feels silly to brush a naked cat. However, the only way to desensitize them to brushing is to do it regularly. And while the maggots may not be happy that you've taken up regular brushing, you and your cat will be.



Phyllis DeGioia
August 5, 2019

Hi Diana, In my experience, mats on long-haired cats form while you turn your head and blink. Please don't beat yourself up; mats happen even when you brush the coat every day (although those mats are teeny tiny in comparison and significantly easier to take care of). A couple of things come to mind. First, look around for a grooming business that takes cats. Here in the U.S., that's hard to find, as cats are less cooperative than dogs and groomers can't anesthetize; I don't know if that's the case in the U.K. You could call your veterinarian to ask if he knows of anyone. While you wait to have the money available, you can buy a specialized grooming tool that remove mats called a detangler, designed to brush out mats. My cat certainly didn't tolerate this for very long, so much of that depends on how your cat reacts to getting groomed. Scissoring them off at the skin is not recommended because those cats often end up needing medical care for a laceration you've accidentally caused, thus making them hate grooming even more in the future. However, if you cut most of the mat off before you use the detangler, that can help. Another option is to get a clipper and shave the cat yourself. This can be quite effective but potentially traumatic for the cat. I had a cat-savvy friend help with this task and we managed to avoid his undergoing anesthesia at the vet for several years, but eventually it stressed him out so much that we couldn't do it anymore. Good luck! I feel your pain.

Diana Nicol
August 4, 2019

My old cat has great thick matts.  Why didn't I notice them when they were beginning to form?  Guilt, remorse  etc, overwhelms me.  I'll have to take her to my usual vet.  But his fee just to consult him has shot up to £100 so adding another £100 for the treatment = £200 which I just haven't got at the moment.   Don't know what to do.

Nora Sage 
May 30, 2015

I have2 two year old long haired cats that are sister/brother. The male never gets matts - he loves to be petted and held. The female doesn't like any of that. She will not allow brushing. I got her shaved and she looks like a hairless with pompoms. But...she seems happier, allows me to pet her and even scratch her back. why, since they are twins, are their coats so different - of is it that one is better at self-grooming?


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