If you have some experience with hair mats, you know their capacity to frustrate and infuriate pet owners and pets alike. Certain breeds are predisposed to this condition because of their coat length and hair texture. The mat itself is a dense blob of fur, and sometimes accumulated debris, initially bound together by tangling. Left undisturbed long enough, it solidifies into a semipermanent surface feature. It may contain a large quantity (multiple pounds, even!) of shed hairs that can no longer escape the skin. Mats can range from the size of a pea to the size—and consistency—of a full-body armor plate. The small one is harmless, except for its underappreciated potential to expand when left to its own devices. Medium- to large-sized mats can have serious health effects.

Mats can grow really large without arousing suspicion, because the outside surface may look just like the normal hair coat. They furthermore tend to arise in areas of high friction, like the armpit and groin, areas which are partially concealed and don’t get quite as much petting. Larger mats are bound tightly to the surface by a sturdy anchor of viable hairs, thereby concealing the condition of the underlying skin and leaving no room for air to circulate. That is a recipe for disaster and definitely not just a cosmetic issue. As a medical professional, I have seen and heard of many terribly ugly events that came to pass beneath a hair mat. Painful skin inflammation is the best of those, and the worst can range from open wounds to maggot infestation to strangulation of an extremity.

Remediation of large mats must be performed by a professional groomer with high quality equipment, and it can be so upsetting (i.e., painful) that anesthesia becomes necessary. (Reminder: no drugs of any sort can be brought to bear at a grooming facility unless it also has an on-site veterinarian.) This will be expensive, because it is difficult and tedious work. Of course an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so daily home grooming is recommended for at-risk pets. Small mats can often be teased out with 1/4 teaspoon of cornstarch or olive oil (applied directly to the mat, then massaged into it) and a device called a slicker brush. And patience, a whole lot of patience.

If you find yourself with a large mat and no foreseeable access to a good groomer, a mat splitter may help tide you over. This is an inexpensive device with a guarded blade, used to slice the large mass into smaller masses. The pain will ease slightly and some degree of air circulation to the skin will resume, until you can get to a professional. Don’t allow a hair mat to get wet with rain, snow, bathing, or swimming, since water exposure makes them denser and tighter. UNDER NO CIRCUMSTANCES WILL YOU PICK UP A PAIR OF SCISSORS TO ADDRESS THE MAT. You will be embarrassed and scared when you rush in to the vet with that gaping, bleeding, owner-inflicted skin wound. Of course, we will be kind to you… but you will still be embarrassed.

Dr. M.S. Regan