Pet Health: Matted Cat Hair

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ILLUSTRATION: BETTMAN ARCHIVE
While cat owners may think their chubby pet is cute, overfeeding predisposes the animal to disease and matted cat hair.

Dear Andrea,

I have a five-year-old Himalayan who is overweight and refuses to groom herself. As a result she frequently has matted cat hair, but won’t allow me to comb her out. What should I do?

Henry Jenkins
Portland, Maine

Dear Henry,

Normal grooming is the sign of a healthy cat. Poor grooming can result from illness, stress, obesity, or use of various skin or hair products with which the animal disagrees. Excessive grooming may result from emotionally stressful conditions — particularly in Siamese or Abyssinians — from chronic boredom or from attention-seeking behavior. A normal cat grooms itself anywhere from 15 to 30 times throughout the day by licking with its tongue, which is equipped with coarse barbules (especially towards the back). These barbules hide the taste buds and are used to groom the coat and to soften food.

Obesity in cats — especially North America house cats — is a direct result of their increase in popularity as pets and consequent change in living conditions. To put it bluntly, today’s cats are frequently spoiled. As indoor cats lead lazier lives and their commercialized food becomes more and more palatable, is it any surprise that the number of obese cats keeps climbing?

Obesity may predispose these animals to increased incidence of coronary disease, hepatic (liver) disease, osteoarthritis, and endocrine abnormalities over the long term. The short-term effects are more obvious: unkempt coat, dull attitude, poor muscle and bone development.

The fact is obese cats don’t groom themselves very well. This may be due to the fact that they experience more respiratory difficulties (because a large body of fat is usually deposited behind the diaphragm) and can’t exert themselves as easily to groom. Or it may be due to the fact that they cannot turn around and distort their bodies into the helical forms that their sleek counterparts can. Either way it becomes a vicious cycle; the less they groom, the worse their coat looks (and tastes for that matter), the less they want to groom themselves, and the more matted they become.

Once a cat becomes matted, it’s impossible and often injurious to the animal to comb or cut the mats out. The ungroomed hair of cats tangles and mats extremely close to the skin, often entrapping debris and dead skin in the process. The mats tighten and stretch the normally mobile skin and cause a great deal of discomfort to the animal. Therefore pulling on them with a comb usually pulls the skin directly. This is not only painful for the animal, but it can harm the skin.

Some owners have attempted to cut the mats out, only to find that they’ve inevitably and unknowingly lacerated the skin intertwined in the mat. The only reasonable solution to mat removal is to have your vet or groomer clip them using professional clippers (often under sedation) and treat the skin underneath accordingly.

After the mats are removed, long haired cats should be combed on a regular basis regardless of their weight, and even if they do groom themselves. An obese cat is more likely to form hair mats and should be placed on an appropriate diet to decrease its weight and decrease the probability that its coat is likely to form hair mats. Your vet can suggest several diet regimens that will assure that caloric intake is appropriate. Never simply starve an obese cat — this may result in several metabolic disturbances, some of which can be life threatening.