Knot Sure About Mats? Read This Guide!

dog grooming boston urban hound

By Vicky Waltz

As groomers, Cassie and I see plenty of hot spots, ear infections, and ingrown toenails. By far, though, the biggest issue we encounter is matted coats.

Mats develop when a dog’s fur tangles into a mass of snarls. If left unattended, these knots wrap together, forming a tight pelt against the skin.

To be blunt, mats are painful. To better understand this discomfort, take a piece of your own hair, wrap it around your finger until it reaches your scalp, and give a slight tug. Now imagine feeling that pain all over your body — including in its most sensitive areas, such as your armpits and groin.

Not only do mats cause bruising and hematomas, they also restrict airflow, trapping moisture against the skin and resulting in bacterial infections. If not removed, mats can become so tight that they cut off circulation; I’ve seen photos of dogs whose mats were so severe that their legs and tails had to be amputated.

dog grooming boston urban hound

Certain breeds are more prone to matting than others. These include:

  1. Dogs with soft and curly or wavy coats, such as poodles, doodles, Portuguese water dogs, and bichons
  2. Dogs with long, silky drop coats, such as shih tzus, Yorkies, Malteses, and Tibetan terriers
  3. Double-coated dogs with thick undercoats, such as cocker spaniels, golden retrievers, and Bernese mountain dogs

The most common causes of mats are:

  1. Friction from rolling, playing, or petting
  2. Moisture from swimming, bathing, snow, or rain
  3. Compression from sitting, laying, or wearing collars, harnesses, or clothing

There are two solutions to treating mats. The first is de-matting, which is the removal of mats through brushing. This is a time-consuming and potentially painful procedure and should only be done if the matting is not severe.

The second option is a short haircut. This involves using clippers to cut underneath the mat, right against the skin. How short we must clip depends upon the severity of the matting and how close it is to the skin.

A common phrase used among groomers is “humanity before vanity.” This is a motto that Cassie and I strictly follow. If we determine de-matting a dog will cause it excessive pain or discomfort, we give clients three choices:

  1. The client may attempt to brush out the mats themselves, and then bring the dog back for a haircut
  2. The client may call other shops and ask if another groomer is willing to de-mat the dog
  3. We will clip the dog’s coat short

The most effective strategy to avoid mats is to brush dogs at least once a week and set them up on regular grooming schedules. Most of our clients keep their dogs on regular six- to eight-week rotations, and clients whose dogs are kept an inch or longer typically come every one to three weeks.

Clients who tend to their dogs’ coats at home should use a curved slicker brush. Cassie and I use a brand called Tuffer Than Tangles.

Brush the coat a small section at a time using the “line brushing” technique: part a section of the coat so you can see the skin, and gently brush it away from the dog’s body. This method allows you to thoroughly brush the coat and find tangles that are hidden beneath the topcoat. Check out this video for an example.

dog grooming boston urban hound

After you’ve finished line brushing, check for mats with a metal comb. Begin at the base of the hair, directly against the skin. If your comb doesn’t glide effortlessly through the coat, there are still tangles.

Cassie and I use only combs that are coated with Teflon. These tend to slide through soft, cottony coats easier than stainless steel combs.

Never cut out mats with scissors. It’s too easy to catch the skin between the blades, resulting in nasty lacerations. I once saw a dog that was missing entire chunks behind its ears because the owner tried to remove the mats with kitchen shears. Remember, mats should only be removed using clippers.

Cassie and I also use a variety of detangling agents. I’ve had success with The Stuff and Quadruped, but Eqyss Survivor is my favorite product.

The important thing to remember when using Survivor is you barely need to use any of it. I put a drop that’s about the size of a ladybug on my finger, and work it into the mat using my finger and thumb. Then I gently pick apart the mat with my brush.

Photos courtesy of Sara Szymansky.