Dear Ms Kitty,
My longhaired cat Loki often gets matted. I took him to a groomer and now he’s so scared he doesn’t want to come out from under the bed. How can I prevent his matting so he doesn’t have another bad experience like that?
Floofy in Frisco
Everybody loves fluffy little kittens. But when they grow into their lovely, long coats, they may need a little help from their human friends to keep them looking—and feeling—good.
Most longhaired cats, including breeds like Maine Coons, Persians and Ragdolls, start to get their full coats at about 9 months. That’s often when the mats start to appear.
Cat coats can vary widely, even within littermates. Some remain silky and unmatted. Some have curly belly fur that rolls up when they try to groom. Some get so matted on their backs it’s like a turtle shell. Some have such thick undercoats they even get mats on top of their heads!
Mats can be painful when they get so thick they trap the skin. Longhaired cats who live outside are even more prone to matting, which can be life threatening to them.
Most cats take care of their own fur. In fact, if your cat is a good groomer and you find their fur is unkempt, that can be a sign of illness.
The more fur you can help Loki remove, the fewer hairballs he will have. Hairballs are the natural product of ingesting fur while grooming. A healthy cat should only be vomiting up hairballs a few times a year at most.
Fortunately, you can be proactive and help Loki avoid those painful mats. Grooming can be a wonderful way to bond with Loki if done gently and lovingly.
It sounds like Loki is already an adult, so save this advice for later. Whenever you adopt a longhaired kitten, introduce him or her to grooming tools right away. You can even start with a small toothbrush if your kitten is small.
Stroke your kitten or cat with the back of the tool so he gets used to the feel. When you turn it over, brush or comb gently in just the top layer of fur to start. It never hurts to reward with tiny meat treats when your kitten accepts the brush or comb.
Choose your tool
There are lots of brushes on the market, but two tools seem to work especially well with longhaired cats and their undercoats.
One is a simple comb. You can get stainless steel ones that will last a long time, with or without a handle. Or you can pick up a sturdy plastic one at any human hair care department. Look for one with teeth that aren’t too far apart, so you can get to that undercoat.
Another good choice looks like a small rake. Some come with two different lengths of teeth. These are great for getting to the undercoat without pulling skin. Look for a rake that isn’t too heavy, as you don’t want to accidentally dig in.
Another good choice is the Massaging Shell Comb from Leo’s Paw. The tines on this comb are flexible as you can see, which makes it good for kitties who might not like the feel of hard metal on their backs. Our experience is that touchy cats are more tolerant of it.
Make it happy
The first rule of grooming, whether at home or at a groomer, is to never hurt Loki. Start by making grooming an extension of happy petting sessions, when he’s already relaxed and purring.
If your cat complains when you’re pulling his fur, STOP. That’s the only way he has to tell you it hurts.
Replace that with his favorite petting stroke until he’s purring again. You can always give him a treat or two to get back to the positive. Respect him telling you when he’s uncomfortable.
You may not be able to groom your cat all over in a single session, but keeping the sessions rewarding will allow you to do them again later. This is a long game with your longhaired cat, so don’t ruin it by being impatient.
Thin that ruff
Loki can’t groom himself if he can’t reach past the long fur under his chin.
You can help by getting a pair of thinning shears, scissors that have one blade with teeth and one without. This allows you to snip into that thick ruff without cutting it off completely.
Hold out the fur with two fingers and snip into it until it’s thinned and shorter. He’ll still have his handsome ruff but also be able to reach the rest of his body.
Tackle the mats
Start by using a very safe tool: your fingers. Mats are tangled fur, and using fingers allows you to gently detangle while monitoring his response.
Locate the mat and then carefully start to pull it apart. It doesn’t matter if you get the whole thing. Loosening any part will help you (and him!) to remove it.
The trick is to watch Loki’s body language carefully. When he tells you to stop, STOP. If you don’t hurt him, you can try again later.
Mats can be trimmed but you’ll have to be extra careful not to accidentally cut Loki’s skin. Electric clippers can be noisy, scary and hard to keep from cutting into the skin.
An alternative to clippers is the Scaredy Cut system. They make both a round tipped scissors and a scissors with built-in guide comb.
Make sure Loki is very relaxed and up for being handled before you start. (Pro tip: feed a tasty meal so he’s full and relaxed…no playtime first!)
Work in the guide comb as close to the skin under the mat as possible. That will protect Loki from you accidentally cutting him from the top with the scissors.
This breaks the mat open and if needed, allows you to start pulling it apart with your fingers or a comb. You can gently work out the mat without resorting to more trimming. Or if needed, you can trim him all over, per their website instructions.
Watch Loki’s weight
Let’s face it: a fat cat can’t reach everywhere he needs to keep his fur clean and tidy. Just like humans, cats can overeat and under exercise.
Make sure Loki isn’t getting too many calories for his size, whether you feed him wet or dry food. If you like to treat him (clicker training is great for enrichment, so daily treats are useful for that), make sure those treats are a replacement for some of his food…not an addition to it.
Exercise doesn’t need to be boring! Exercise = playtime and can be the most fun part of the day for you both. Please see our tips on how to get Loki to get up and move.
If you find that Loki has more mats than you can handle without discomfort, you may need a professional. However, groomers untrained in the special needs of cats can be traumatizing.
Here are some things to look for in a groomer:
- Find a cat-only groomer, or at least one who schedules cat grooming when dogs aren’t present. Even if a cat has lived with dogs, being in a building with noisy, unfamiliar dogs can be like putting a small dog in a building full of cougars. You don’t want to set up Loki up to be scared even before the grooming tools come out.
- Ask about their cat handling experience. Exposing a cat to water, noisy clippers and blow dryers all while being handled by a stranger—even without dogs–can be the worst experience of their lives. A qualified cat groomer will have training specific to cats and may even have Fear Free Handling qualifications too. They can help offset all the scary equipment and activity of a salon, so Loki can come away with less trauma.
Fortunately for us in Colorado Springs, there is feline-friendly grooming at Catology Cat Hotel. Owner Shannan Longley is cat-savvy and trained in low-stress techniques.
If there is no other solution to keep your longhaired cat pain-free, she can help get you back on track. Then patience, love and letting Loki tell you what he’s comfortable with will make grooming just another part of bonding with your beautiful longhaired cat!
Sara Ferguson is the Director of Happy Cats Haven. Ask Ms Kitty supports cat behavior consulting offered on our website at HappyCatsHaven.org/helpline/.