The Trouble with Mats!
Preventing mats in your pet is not only important for his style, but also for his health! Mats occur when adjacent hairs start to tangle together and knot. When the hairs tangle together, they pull on the animal's skin. The larger and tighter the mat, the more it pulls. At best, this pulling is uncomfortable. At worst, it can actually impede the animal's movement. Sometimes mats will actually rip patches of hair out of the skin, leaving bald spots underneath.
Mats also collect dirt and moisture and create a good environment for parasites, bacteria, and other beasties. Skin irritations and infections often develop underneath matted areas. Mats both encourage and prevent dogs from scratching themselves - they can hurt themselves trying to get at an itchy spot without being able to scratch through the mat to get to the spot that really itches!
When matting is severe, the best course of action is to shave the animal and start over. Even in cold weather, your pet going to be much more comfortable in a short shave than in a matted, moisture-absorbing, itchy coat. And he can always wear a cute, comfy sweater!
The most important tool for mat-prone pets is the comb. If you only have one tool, this is the one you must have. A greyhound comb is a metal comb with teeth about an inch long. A good all-purpose comb will be a medium/coarse comb. The teeth on one side are about one milimeter apart (the medium side) and the teeth on the other side are two milimeters apart (the coarse side). The medium/coarse should work well for anyone, although you may find that you prefer a finer or coarser comb for your pet's hair. Also, different combs have different length teeth. Experiment and find a comb that feels comfortable and works well!
A variation on the comb is the rake. The rake is built the same as a comb except that it is shaped like a "T." Because you are combing at a different angle, the rake is more comfortable to use for dense coats. Also, the teeth are usually longer and spread out more. A rake is a good option if your pet has a thick coat or if you find that using a comb causes pain in your wrist.
With either the rake or the comb, the technique is basically the same. You want to put the teeth all the way down to touch the skin and then turn the comb to pull away from the body. It's very important not to drag the teeth along the skin (the way people usually tend to comb hair). If you hit a tangle, use short tugs to gently unravel it. If it does not unravel easily, you should switch to another tool (more on those later). Although you can get tangles out by pulling harder and breaking the hair, that will cause a lot of problems for you later on! Not only does it cause pain for the dog, but the broken hair is more likely to form tangles in the future. Also, damaged hair is less attractive in flow and appearance than healthy, unbroken hair. Minimizing breakage will give you a much better result!
If you are coming across tangles that do not unravel easily, the slicker brush is a very helpful tool. It has a field of bent metal pins that grab and pull on the tangle, then release. By brushing over the same spot a number of times with the slicker, you can gradually loosen a tangle until it disappears. It's a much gentler way to encourage a mat to separate. However, because its pins don't grab and hold, the brush won't get caught on tangles -- so always use your comb to find tangles and then check with your comb after brushing with the slicker brush to make sure you haven't missed any. Also, the slicker's pins can do a lot of damage to the skin if used improperly. Pull away from the body the same way you do with a comb or rake and be especially careful that you're not hurting your pet if you have to go over the same spot many times or if you're using it on sensitive areas like ears, armpits, or the belly.
If you are still having trouble, there are a variety of conditioning sprays specially formulated to help de-tangle trouble spots. Look for a silicone-based conditioning spray - the silicone makes the hair slippery and easy to tease apart. You can spray it directly on a tangle and then use the slicker brush and comb to separate the hairs.
Mats that resist the spray, slicker, and comb may require shaving or splitting. At this point, you should consult a professional groomer! Cutting mats yourself is not recommended. If you decide to go that route anyway, be extremely careful not to cut your pet!
Your pet's ideal grooming schedule will vary based on breed, coat type, and style. Please consult your groomer to find out what level of professional maintenance will work best for you and your pet.
For between grooming maintenance at home, a weekly comb-out session is ideal for most pets. Picking a set day and/or time for your comb-out session makes it easy to remember when it was last done and when it should be done again. And on a weekly schedule, it should be a quick and easy process. If once a week is too often or not often enough, adjust the schedule until it works for your pet's coat type and style. And if you find that the maintenance is too much to deal with, you always have the option of visiting your groomer more often or switching to a shorter style.
Be sure to go over all the trouble spots - pets typically mat quickly in their armpits, under their collar, behind their ears, and on their tail. Keeping the legs in good shape should be a priority -- you can usually still have a cute haircut with a short body and full legs, but not the other way around!
Be aware that moisture will cause hair to mat more quickly and more strongly. Bathing your dog without a good comb-out either before or after the bath will encourage very tough mats to form. It's far kinder to let your pet stay dirty than it is to allow them to suffer from the tight, painful matting that bathing without combing can cause. But remember, it's not just bathing - swimming, running through snow or morning dew, and spending time in the rain will all help speed up the matting process, so be extra vigilant about combing if your dog is being exposed to moisture.
Be extra gentle with sensitive areas like the belly, throat, and bony areas like the spine or elbows. Always be extremely careful using products or tools near the face in general and the eyes in particular! And if you are unsure or uncomfortable maintaining your pet at home, please let your groomer take care of it, with a style and on a schedule that works for you and your pet.
How you handle your pet during comb-out sessions will make a big difference in how well he handles the process.
Your pet may fuss, fight, and argue during the grooming process. If you're not hurting him, then he's simply uncomfortable with the process. Part of that may be that you are not confident about what you are doing and he senses that. It may also be that he thinks that fighting will end the process. Baby animals, in particular, will fight anything new. It's an instinctive response. But it can cause many problems down the road. Know that your pet will be much safer and happier calmly accepting the things he needs from you and from pet professionals. You have the power to train him either way - to be calm or to fight - based on the way you respond to his fussing.
If you're combing him and he resists, you should never allow him to pull away from you. You should never end the grooming session while he is arguing, either. If you stop what you're doing or let go while they are resisting, you are letting them know that if they fight, you will stop. If you allow them to think this, it's like training them to argue. So don't let go. And don't stop. If you want to end the combing process, wait until your pet is in a calm state of mind, not pulling, fussing, or making noises at you. This will show your pet that good behavior, not bad, is necessary for the comb-out to end. And once they learn to accept calmly, most pets really enjoy comb-out time - it becomes a relaxing, bonding experience.
While you will usually have faster, better results if you start working with an animal when it is very young, even older animals with bad habits can be turned around with regular, kind, consistent leadership. And keep in mind that when you're doing the best for your pet, there is no reason to feel guilty or sympathetic toward your pet. These feelings actually undermine your relationship with your animal and weaken your emotional bond. You love your pet and want what's best for him. Be someone he trusts and looks up to, not someone he doesn't respect and who gives him confusing emotional signals. Your pet needs you to be the boss, and to be proud of your leadership role!
(For more on training your pet to accept grooming calmly, please review our "Puppy Prep School" hand-out. It is appropriate not only for puppies but for older dogs and for cats as well!)
Disclaimer: Vania Velotta is neither a certified pet trainer nor a veterinarian. Her advice is based on years of experience in the pet care industry and working with rescued animals as well as theories and techniques expressed by professional trainers and experienced pet owners through a variety of media. This advice is not intended to replace or supercede the advice of professional pet trainers or veterinarians. Always consult a qualified professional if you have questions about behavior or medical issues. There are many techniques and philosophies today concerning pet care and behavior - find what works best for you and your pet!
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