The Cat and the Mat
July 24, 2019 7:24 AM   Subscribe

We have a lovely little neighborhood cat that we call Nicodemus. He was part of a litter of kitties born under my neighbor's deck two years ago, and he is ostensibly owned by the folks that live across the alley now. He's been neutered and he's fed by the neighbors, but he's basically a roamer. He's also got long fur...and mats. The mats make me worried. Should I be? What should I do, if anything?

Nicodemus (obligatory cat tax, no mats) is super friendly and sweet. He's got some really thick mats on one side, and one spot where the fur has pulled away from the skin to reveal a small cut. It's about 1/2" long and shaped like a fingernail, doesn't look infected or anything.

He'll always let me pet him (and he looooovvvves it), but will NOT let me pick him up for more than a few seconds. He's a light little kitty under all that fur. He's doesn't seem to be hindered by the mats but to my non-cat-owner eyes, it just looks so painful and sad. If my dog came home with mats like that there would be a marathon de-matting session in the backyard with lots of howling and whining, but eventual resignation to the brush. But there's a big difference between handling my 70 lb obedient-ish dog and this 3 lb feral-ish cat, so I don't suspect that "get out the brush and the band-aids" is the solution here.

Plus, he's not my cat. I am not particularly friendly with his owners (the folks across the alley), but I can talk to the lady next door who feeds him dinner every day.

So, I guess I have some Cat Mat 101 questions:

1. Are the mats hurting him? Do they need to be removed for the health and happiness of the kitty?

2. Do they require human intervention, or will Nicodemus take care of them by grooming (or will they just sort of work themselves out)?

3. If they require human intervention, what sort of intervention would that be?

Thanks in advance. In general, I am Anti-Outdoor-Cat but it's hard to be anti-Nicodemus. He's a chill lazy-cat who does nothing but look pretty and spread the love.
posted by Gray Duck to Pets & Animals (14 answers total)
What a gorgeous cat!

Some cats have fur that kind of clumps and then will eventually be neatly pulled out by tongue baths or rubbing up on surfaces. Some cats have mats that really felt in there. It depends on their coat and is sometimes even seasonal, and of course being outside can introduce all sorts of grit and non-fur substances that can complicate things.

In extreme cases mats can be painful because they twist up the skin underneath or impeded movement - they can even clump up so much that cats get weighed down, and like with your guy they can get snagged and hurt the skin beneath. One of my previous cats was shaved all over when we adopted her because she was so terribly matted - she came from an abusive home and didn't know how to groom herself. But it looks like Nicodemus is taking pretty good care of himself and it's great that he lets you pet him - that likely means he's not in any pain other than that one spot you describe.

Since he's not a show cat, you can just cut the mats off. You can snip them off partially with blunt tipped scissors (like the kind you use for kindergarten, or even bandage cutters) and the shorter fur in the mat should be easier for him to work out on his own. If you can sort of determine by feel where the mat starts near the skin, you can try to get in close and cut out the entire mat at once, but that's kind of an advanced technique and might be too much manhandling for him. He might like to rub on some kind of bristly thing, which will help him groom and work out some of his smaller mats. An outdoor item that cats tend to love is one of those bristly boot scrapers. You could also try holding out one of your dog's brushes (after washing it thoroughly!) to see if he wants to rub up on it.

You can try a little bit of this at a time. It seems like it might be seasonal - plenty of cats have a clumping cycle in the warmer months so the mats might get worked out on their own. If you want to try snipping the biggest mat off, introduce him to scissors over time, hold them in your other hand while you pet him, place them nearby, use them to stroke him gently, etc until he doesn't react to them much, then give it a go. Same sort of introduction with any kind of grooming tool, really.
posted by Mizu at 7:55 AM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

If he's friendly enough to be pet, he's probably friendly enough for a gentle brushing. They make grooming gloves with bristles that should do the trick.

If you choose to use a brush: Like you would a child's hair, hold the fur between the mat and the skin as you "tug" (gently) at the mat with the brush. We use this brush for our kitty with fur like that. Most of them brush right out without even gentle tugging; some basically come off into the brush as a wad of untethered fur; some need detangling like hair.

When our guy was at the shelter (before we took him), the shelter had shaved all his mats off. The mats probably don't hurt him, unless they are a deep gnarled mess or a mat formed around a burr, but he will likely appreciate the grooming assistance.
posted by crush at 7:58 AM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

I owned a longer haired cat he came to us with mats and he had skin problems underneath the mats which could not have been comfortable. I would guess these are not good for his overall health.

It's possible to catch him in a have a heart trap and then drug him after that by putting something in his food, and then have him shaved while he's knocked out. I don't know that a mostly feral cat will let you brush at him enough to get the mats worked out even a little bit.
posted by Medieval Maven at 8:00 AM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Mats on long-haired outdoor cats can significantly limit their lifespans because mats can cause skin problems and infections. Infections can kill. Regular brushing by humans can help stop mats before they start, but if he already has some, he needs help and intervention. Since he's not owned by anybody, you can feel secure that you are doing him right by getting him help. Even indoor, owned long-haired cats get mats if they are not brushed; cats groom themselves but they all have blind spots and it happens even to the most fastidious self-groomers.

Contact your local vet and ask them for advice. They can potentially help you set a cat trap for him, they might do house-calls, and yes, it will involve shaving the mats off. Underneath they will assess the skin, probably take a scraping if it looks like there are mites or other problems, and if there is an infection give you some antibiotics to dose him with. (You can put these in food and treats.) It's worth the expense for your neighbor-cat who you care about, and who you want to stick around a long time.

Grooming gloves are a wonderful way to help prevent mats in the future, if he likes being petted.
posted by juniperesque at 8:48 AM on July 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

He's not your cat. Brushing him would be fine but anything more should wait until you talk with the owners and get their permission. I would expect the owners to be offended if their cat (even a mostly outdoors cat who loves the neighbors) came home one day unexpectedly shaved or with weird clipped spots.
posted by metahawk at 9:31 AM on July 24, 2019

Nicodemus is gorgeous! Yes, mats can be painful and cause skin problems; they may not cause him any suffering right now, but they are likely to do so eventually.

One trick I found for removing mats without hurting the cat underneath: with scissors, start at the end of the mat, furthest from the skin, and snip off a little bit of mat at a time. It’s less likely to pull at the cat’s skin, and as you cut more of it away, the matted fur gets looser and easier to handle, and sometimes detangles itself a bit, so you can often leave a little more fur on the cat than if you attempt to cut the entire mat out. Plus it’s weirdly satisfying (if messy).

I don’t think there’s a clear answer on whether it’s right or appropriate to intervene with another person’s cat, but in this case I’d probably do it. Fur grows back. If you can’t talk directly to the owners, try to trim his fur in an obviously-done-by-humans way so they don’t think he’s got a weird disease or snagged his mats on a tree branch or something.
posted by Metroid Baby at 10:03 AM on July 24, 2019 [1 favorite]

Just a word of warning: You should probably not use scissors to cut away the mats. You can easily injure the cat by cutting his skin. See, for example, this YouTube video: Warning! Do Not Use Scissors to Cut Cat Mats. It's extremely easy to start cutting into the skin when you think you are cutting the fur. The skin gets pulled up into the mat and ends up being partly obscured. People who are not used to grooming cats are particularly prone to making this mistake. I know of one unfortunate case where the cat was actually badly mangled by someone who didn't know what he was doing. This WikiHow article gives alternative ways of removing mats. I can't actually speak to their effectiveness, but the advice seems reasonable at first glance.
posted by JD Sockinger at 10:28 AM on July 24, 2019 [4 favorites]

I've managed to brush out mats out of my friend's cat who looks just like Nicodemus! My friend's cat also loves being pet and hates being picked up. She's an indoor kitty, but has trouble reaching some spots on herself. What worked for us: my friend's cat absolutely loves loves loves getting cheek and forehead scratches. I'd start brushing her and would gently work through a mat. When she starts getting snippy or squirrelly, I'd use the brush to scratch her forehead and cheeks for a minute or two until she calms back down. Then I'd go back to working out the mat.

It's a pretty long process, but I managed to get most of the cat's mats out over the course of a weekend.
posted by astapasta24 at 10:31 AM on July 24, 2019 [2 favorites]

If he’ll stand for it, a slicker brush is the way to go. Start slow, at the edge of the mat, holding the fur in one hand so it doesn’t pull. As you work it out, it will get looser and go faster. If you’ve ever brushed a big snarl out of a long-haired kid’s hair, it’s pretty similar.

As to the question of if you should... well, there’s a stray(? maybe but he’s super friendly so he might be a neighbor’s cat that lives outside...) that spends a lot of time in my yard and he had mats and I totally brushed them out when he first started coming around. So I clearly think it’s okay.
posted by Weeping_angel at 1:00 PM on July 24, 2019

(I just spent some time recently with my two long hairs, working out chest and armpit mats.) If the kitty likes cat nip, give him a sprig, or a hefty pinch of dry nip. He'll go into a frenzy of rubbing, nibbling and rolling! Just let him go, and when he winds down, do some petting. He'll be pretty relaxed and you should be able to do a bit of judicious trimming. I also use Metroid Baby's method, using blunt tipped small scissors. You may not get it all removed in one session, but just whittling the mat down will help, not be noitcible and he may be able to work the rest out by himself. Once my cats realize what I'm doing, they tend to relax and seem to enjoy the process. Be very gentle and calm, and this can be a good experience for both of you.
posted by LaBellaStella at 3:35 PM on July 24, 2019

The mats need to be removed by a person. Absolutely step up to the plate if nobody else will or can. You can have a conversation about it before or after if you think it will help, but I personally would rather risk an offended neighbor than see an animal in need of assistance and not help it. And maybe I misread, but it sounds like he's being fed by somebody not his owners, anyway? If so, it sounds like they're not really taking care of Nicodemus and/or not taking umbrage at other people doing so.

I have to second avoiding scissors unless you are well, well away from the skin, and only to get things started a bit. Maybe not even then. You may be able to gently brush them out a little at a time as described above, outside-in, but possibly not if they're extensive and felted. Some people use seam rippers but I'd be cautious about that. I've never used a dematting comb so don't know how well that would work in this situation.

The process of tugging on the already tight knots, even if you have a hold of them, is going to be uncomfortable for kitty and even the most tolerant cats will pull away before long, so you'll need to be gentle, take frequent breaks, and give treats/love. Kitty might like a wire brush set on the ground just to rub his face against while you work.

If he'll tolerate it without sedation, shaving them off may be your best option. You could even just carefully shave into the mats to help break them up, and avoid scissor danger altogether. Start out by slowly acclimatizing Nicodemus to the sound and proximity before you go to work on him.

(I want to squish that sweet kitty.)
posted by moira at 4:08 PM on July 24, 2019

Oh, if you do go the shaving route, shave above the skin, not at it.
posted by moira at 4:10 PM on July 24, 2019

I have a long haired cat. She lets us pet her, but not hold her. She gets mats. I tried the brushing thing with treats and all. Didn't work. I have to have her shaved every 6 months or so. She goes to the vet who sedates her. Just my experience with a housecat.
posted by kathrynm at 4:53 AM on July 25, 2019


My neighbor - the feeder of the cat, not the "owner" of the cat - was able to cut some of the really bad mats off. She and the cat are on good enough terms that he allowed her to pick him up. She also got one of those gloves for detangling fur, and is using it when he comes for dinner. It turns out that the little cut that I saw on his skin was from where she used normal scissors to try and cut the mat off. So she found some safety scissors and those worked much better. Right now Nicodemus looks a bit bald on one side but at least the mats are under control.

Nicodemus, my neighbor, and I all thank you for the advice.
posted by Gray Duck at 12:29 PM on August 23, 2019

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