Drop Those Scissors: Removing Matted Fur the Right Way

When it comes to cleaning up gnarly mats, grooming accidents can land you at the vet. Just be honest about it.

Long-haired cats develop matted fur more easily than their short-haired counterparts do. By: dubswede

Removing mats from your pet should not result in an emergency vet visit. But does this happen? You bet.

Many well-meaning people just want to take that pesky mat off their dog or cat, but they’re actually performing unwanted surgery. Then surgery is needed to close the laceration created by Edward Scissorhands or Clipper-Happy Clara.

Taking a pair of scissors to your pet’s body is never a good idea. Sometimes it winds up as a mini Texas Chainsaw incident.

Get Over the Guilt

People usually get a double-whammy dose of guilt when they accidentally cut their pet’s skin.

First whammy: They know the pet got too matted, and they feel neglectful.

Second whammy: Pets groom themselves less as they age. These unkempt creatures are often debilitated, so people feel particularly upset about hurting a pet who is already in pain.

Pets at Risk

  • Long-haired cats
  • Golden retrievers with mats behind the ears (and other breeds like Bernies, Newfies, setters)
  • Pets (usually older cats) with very thin skin due to a medical problem
  • Aging, arthritic, debilitated or obese pets who groom less or cannot reach certain areas

Don’t Lie to the Veterinarian

People come up with the darnedest stories about how the unknown laceration appeared on their pet. Some will even tell me they had no idea how these injuries occurred:

  • “Maybe the cat got caught in a fence.”
  • “I bet she pulled out that mat herself.”
  • “I know the other dog bit her the other day.”

Scissor lacerations don’t look like any of the above injuries. A telltale sign of a human-induced mishap is the clearly cut fur surrounding the laceration or the clean cut on the skin that can only be made by a sharp implement. Best to ‘fess up to the truth so the wound can be treated appropriately.

Bernies and Golden Retrievers are known to have problems with mats behind their ears. By: 4Neus

Treatment for Scissor Wounds

Clean the wound with warm water or a little diluted hydrogen peroxide. Seek veterinary help if you see an open laceration and the muscle layer exposed beneath the cut.

Your vet can assess whether the area will close on its own with topical treatment or if suturing or surgical glue is required. In my experience, the worst are the wounds behind the ear. These often need a bit of surgery and an Elizabethan collar until they heal.

How to Safely Remove Mats

Professional clippers (affiliate link) are the best tools to use close to the skin, but de-matting also takes a bit of skill.

Holding the clippers at the correct angle and getting under the mat to remove most of it at once is ideal. There’s a bit of a learning curve, and you should know that professional animal clippers are more powerful than what you may have at home for trimming sideburns.

If you still think you can use scissors, it’s extremely important to tease the mat away from the skin and have a visual on the area before picking up those darn scissors. I like to see a good 1/4 inch or more of space between the mat and the skin before cutting.

But avoiding the scissors is even better. If you can’t comb the mat out or use clippers, seeking professional help from a groomer or a vet is a great idea.

Here are more tips that should make mat removal easier and safer:

The “ounce of prevention” rule works well here, and it’s great if the matted fur never snarls in the first place, but stuff happens. At regular veterinary visits, ask your vet or vet tech to do some preventive clipping of mats.

Mats Are Dirty and Uncomfortable

Keep an eye out for mats on your pet and remove them immediately.

For example, get that obese kitty a “sanitary clip” by her big butt! She does not want to hold onto those dingleberries (besides, the other kitties are making fun of her behind her tail).

Keep the area behind a dog’s ears free of mats as well as those puffy pantaloons he’s wearing. These dogs must feel like they’re sitting on a sack of potatoes when the rear end mats get too thick.

Keep on top of long-haired cats who don’t groom. A woman once brought me an 18-year-old cat she thought was dying. The poor woman was crying in the waiting room. She thought the massive bump on the cat’s spine was a tumor. Nope — just a large mat.

As veterinarians, we’d love to help you with some clipping and coiffing. After all, it’s a lot easier to clip away a mat than to suture up a bad scissor injury.


This pet health content was written by a veterinarian, Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD. It was last reviewed Dec. 15, 2015.

Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD

View posts by Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD
Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD, is a small animal and exotics veterinarian who has split her time between a veterinary practice in Pelham, Massachusetts, and her studio in New York City. Dr. Lichtenberg is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Veterinary Medicine with 30 years of experience. Her special interests are soft tissue surgery and oncology.

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