Next to napping in the sunshine, grooming may very well be one of your cat’s most beloved activities.
Cats typically spend up to 50 percent of their waking hours on grooming, often adopting yoga-like positions to ensure that every hair, from whiskers to tail, is meticulously groomed.
Consistent, thorough grooming is important for cats’ overall health. It removes dirt, dead skin cells, and parasites. It distributes oils in their skin to keep their coats silky smooth.
However, sometimes a seemingly insignificant knot in your cat’s hair can develop into a matted, tangled mess. That can throw off your pet’s normal grooming regimen and may even expose them to health risks. So here’s everything you need to know about matted cat hair and what to do about it to keep your pet healthy and thriving.
Why Do Cats Get Matted Hair?
When fine strands of cat hair get knotted and tangled, they often turn into densely entwined mats that refuse to separate. Matted cat hair can form a noticeable clump in your pet’s fur.
“When cats groom themselves, their tongues, which are full of tiny barbs, remove the dead hair,” explains Samantha Bell, cat behavior expert for Best Friends Animal Society. “Mats are caused by excess dead hair getting trapped under the top coat and combining with the oils in the cat’s skin to form a hard, rough, painful lump.”
Mats tend to appear in places that are difficult for cats to reach (such as the back) and are more common in areas where there is a lot of friction (like the armpits), according to Bell.
Matted cat hair not only looks unsightly, it can cause your cat a lot of discomfort because the skin is pulled so tightly. The tangled clumps also prevent airflow to the skin, which may cause skin irritation and—in severe cases—even lead to infection. If the fur around a cat’s anal region gets matted, it can trap urine and feces, increasing the risks of infection.
Some cats are more prone to matted hair than others, according to Sheila Bailey, veterinary assistant at San Diego Humane Society.
“Most cats are very efficient at preventing mats through self-grooming,“ says Bailey. “But many long-haired or elderly cats need extra help from their owners to keep their coats well maintained and mat-free.”
The reason? Research shows that it’s harder for long-haired breeds like Persians to access layers of their fur closest to the skin (1). That makes their coats “un-groomable” and, without some grooming help from their owners, their fur is extra prone to matting.
Certain medical conditions can also increase the likelihood cats will have matted fur. Bailey notes that cats with arthritis may find it more difficult to reach all areas of the body for self-grooming. Other illnesses that cause your cat to feel lethargic or uncomfortable could also cause them to under-groom.
“A sudden change in grooming habits can be an indicator that it is time to visit your regular veterinarian,” she adds.
How to Get Mats Out of Cat Hair
The most important tip to remember when it comes to removing matted cat hair is this: Go slow. Attempting to comb out mats too quickly could hurt your cat (and may make them reluctant to sit still for future grooming sessions). If your cat has multiple mats in his or her fur, expect to devote multiple grooming sessions to removing them.
For small, relatively loose mats, start by spritzing the area with a detangling spray formulated for pets. Then use a wide-toothed comb to loosen and remove tangled fur. With one hand, hold the hair below the mat, close to the skin. And with the other hand, move the brush gently through the mat, making sure to avoid or minimize pulling on the hair as much as possible.
Larger mats may need to be shaved off with clippers. A veterinarian or professional cat groomer can often remove them quickly and efficiently, without stressing your cat out too much. Depending on the size and severity of the matting, as well as the disposition of the cat, some pets may require sedation in order to remove larger mats.
Regardless of the size of the matting, Bell offers an important caution: Do not use scissors.
“Often, you can’t see it, but their thin skin can be so entwined in the mat that you will likely slice the skin and hurt the cat,” she says. “I’ve seen many well-meaning cat volunteers try to cut off a mat and find they’ve injured the cat quite seriously.”
Grooming Tools Needed for Matted Cat Hair
When it comes to matted cat hair removal, some tools are better than others. Bailey recommends slicker brushes to remove loose hair and wide- and fine-toothed combs for loosening and working through mats. If the mats are severe, remember to skip the scissors and use clippers to remove matted cat hair instead.
“Clippers with an adjustable blade can help remove tightly matted hair close to the skin,” Bailey says. “Be sure to read the clipper instructions to get the best result and to prevent cutting the skin. And use quiet clippers to decrease the stress for the cat.”
How to Prevent Matted Cat Hair
It’s much easier to prevent matted cat fur than it is to remove established mats. Bailey suggests starting a regular grooming routine when cats are kittens to get them used to being brushed.
“If your cat is not thrilled with brushing, start with very brief grooming sessions—just one or two strokes—that immediately ends when you notice signs of stress,” says Bell. “Reward them with their favorite treat or wand toy after grooming sessions so they see it as a positive ritual.”
Supplements may also help prevent matted fur. Bailey suggests talking to your veterinarian about omega-3 fatty acids found in fish oil supplements to improve skin and coat health. “Routine veterinarian checkups can also help identify skin and coat problems before they get out of control,” she adds.
Feeding your cat a nutritious, balanced diet that helps them maintain a healthy weight can also help prevent matted fur.
“Weight management is important,” Bailey says. “Cats that suffer from severe obesity may find it difficult or impossible to self-groom effectively.”
Prioritizing prevention with regular grooming, vet care, a nutritious diet and supplements are essential. But if your cat does get matted fur, acting quickly (but gently) to remove mats before they grow bigger will ensure that they can maintain good health and return to their regularly scheduled self-grooming routine.