When it comes to the care and keeping of our canine best friends, it goes without saying that food, water, shelter, and abundant love are quintessential needs that must be met in order to maintain a four-legged family member's well-being. But for a variety of dog breeds with long or fluffy hair, there is one more need that is just as important as the rest: building a consistent brushing routine to avoid painful matting.
Matting is a condition in which a dog's fur becomes so densely knotted or tangled that it cannot be brushed through with a comb. Matted hair is not only extremely painful for your dog to experience, but it can also cause a variety of serious skin issues that require professional attention. To avoid the pain of matting all around, we spoke to two professional dog groomers about how to identify matted fur on a dog, when and how it can be treated at home, when to seek professional care, and how to prevent it altogether.
What Causes My Dog's Fur to Mat?
Matting occurs when a dog's coat locks together — often when the fur is wet or damp — and the locks are left untreated, leading them to tighten and tangle even further over time, said Kēnya Stoute, a professional dog groomer with over 10 years of experience and owner of Doggy Downtime in Denver. "Wet pet hair naturally locks together, and when your pet is even slightly damp, dust and dirt are attracted to it," she said. "As the hair dries, these locks tighten and tangle, making them difficult to brush and comb out."
One common misconception about preventing matting is that bathing a dog at home prevents mats. "In fact, it's the exact opposite," Stoute said. "Dogs who are bathed at home are often left to air dry and not thoroughly brushed out afterward. That kind of home-grooming process essentially ensures that your dog will start to develop mats quickly." That's not to say you can't or shouldn't give your dog a bath at home. "It's simply imperative that you thoroughly brush and comb their entire body after they are fully and completely dry," Stoute continued. "You'll need to be able to easily glide a fine-toothed comb (touching down to the skin with the comb and moving outwards) over and under your dog's entire body, head to toes to tail, without running into a tangle before calling it a day."
Clothes and harnesses can also cause your dog's hair to mat if left on over a long period of time. "These items make the fur compress onto their skin, which then causes mats," explained Arisa Thomas, owner of Blue Pooch salon in Los Angeles and a professional dog groomer specialising in Japanese-style grooming.
How Do I Know If My Dog's Hair Is Matted?
The first sign? If you can see visible tangles or knots in their fur. If you can't see them, but you also can't run a comb through from the root of their fur to the ends, it's also matted. If a mat takes more than three to five brush strokes to detangle enough to run a fine-toothed comb through, that's when it's time to get help, Stoute explained. "In extreme cases, it may be difficult or even impossible to part your dog's hair to the point where you can clearly see their skin," Stoute said. "Mats can sometimes be like dreadlocks, with rope-like strands, or more packed and flat across the skin. When attempting to pull any type of mats apart, the strands of hair will seem to be woven in and out of each other in many different directions."
Are There Certain Breeds or Hair Types That Are More Prone to Matting?
Absolutely. "Really, any dog with a longer-textured coat can become matted," Thomas explained. The breeds most susceptible are bichon frises, havaneses, schnauzers, wheaten terriers, poodles or poodle mixes (think goldendoodles, labradoodles, sheepadoodles, and so on), and dogs with straight, silky coats, like shih tzus, malteses, and yorkies."
What Does a Dog Feel When Their Hair Is Matted?
It's not comfortable for your pup. "Matting can be very painful for your dog, especially if the mats are tight to the skin," Thomas explained. "Mats cause the skin to feel as if it is constantly being pulled on, even when your dog is not being touched," Stoute added. "High-friction areas (such as around the legs and joints) can be especially uncomfortable." On top of the pain, both experts agree that serious skin and health issues can occur when matting is severe. "Matted dogs can also suffer overheating/heat stroke," Stoute said. "Oftentimes, mats cause skin issues such as hair loss, sores, and infections due to trapped moisture and the inability for air to flow freely to the skin."
Severe matting can cut off circulation to your dog's skin and cause many painful ailments, including hematomas, which are similar to a blood blister. Mats can also cause hotspots (raw, red patches of skin) to form. "Hotspots can be very uncomfortable for dogs because they constantly scratch and lick that area, causing the skin to become even more irritated," Thomas said.
It is important to note that untreated severe matting can cause irreversible harm to your dog. "Mats grow thicker and tighter around the skin in short periods of time and in extreme cases have even led to the loss of circulation resulting in the need to amputate decayed body parts that can no longer function," Stoute said. That's why it's best to get your dog groomed if you ever spot mats forming.
How Can I Safely Care For Matting at Home?
If your dog's hair is prone to matting, the best way to ensure that they will not experience any pain is by fully educating yourself on how to prevent their fur from tangling at all. For at-home prevention, both Stoute and Thomas agree on getting in the habit of brushing your dog daily. "Brush and comb your dog at home with a gentle slicker brush and a fine-toothed comb," Stoute said. In addition, be sure to make regular visits to a professional groomer every six to eight weeks.
If your dog develops lighter tangles (that seem like they'd come out within three to five brushes), first apply a leave-in conditioning spray to help soften mats. "Follow that with a slicker brush to loosen and separate the tangles/mats," Thomas said. "Then use a metal comb to work through that section, making sure that the teeth go smoothly through, from the root of their hair to the tip. If the comb does not go all the way through, your dog still has tangles/mats." It is very important that you only attempt to comb out lightly tangled knots, as attempting to detangle severe matting at home is very painful for your dog, Stoute explained.
"If you are trying to brush your dog's mats at home and are unable to do so, stop and make an appointment to see a groomer the next day," Thomas said. It doesn't matter the size of the mat, either — it's safer to let the pros handle it. "There is absolutely no advisable way to safely detangle or remove severe matting at home without hurting your dog and/or damageing their coat," Stoute said. Cutting out mats with scissors or a razor at home can injure your pet and result in an expensive visit to the vet. "Removing mats can be very tricky and risky even for professionals since they are often close to the skin and can cover skin issues like sores," Stoute said. "Most groomers will even require you to sign a waiver before they will agree to work on your pet's matting due to the added risk and difficulty." For this reason, it's always in your dog's best interest to do everything you can to prevent mats in the first place. And if they do happen, be sure to be honest with your dog groomer — they can help you learn how to avoid matting from occurring in the future.