One of the things we love about dogs and cats is their glorious, often fluffy fur coats.
A well-groomed dog or cat is aesthetically pleasing.
But grooming isn't just cosmetic. Veterinarians treat many conditions that result from inadequate grooming, which can be associated with poor health and welfare.
Regular brushing and grooming of dogs and cats prevent the formation of mats.
Mats can cause discomfort and pain, and obstruct movement and normal bodily functions.
For example, mats that form around the base of the tail and surrounds can obstruct the anus, leading to a form of constipation known as "pseudocoprostasis".
Fortunately, this can be relieved with the careful removal of the mats.
In some animals this requires sedation to ensure mat removal does not cause additional pain.
Antibiotics may be required if the skin in the area becomes infected.
In cases of severe neglect, dogs can develop strangulating mats that encircle the limbs, restricting movement and circulation.
As these mats tighten, they have a tourniquet effect, leading to the constriction of blood vessels in the limbs and, eventually, death of the muscle and skin supplied by those blood vessels.
A study of 27 dogs, published this year in Veterinary Radiology and Ultrasound, found the effects of strangulating hair mats to be more severe than previously described.
Researchers closely reviewed the medical records of dogs involved in animal cruelty cases presented to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) hospital in New York City.
In this study, shih-tzus, Maltese and Yorkshire terriers were the most commonly affected breeds. Interestingly, the majority of dogs in the study were not desexed.
The investigators found that strangulating hair mats were associated not just with injury to the soft tissue of the limb, but also in some cases with bone inflammation, bone remodelling, loss of bone and occasionally dislocation of joints.
The study confirms that strangulating hair mats have the potential to cause severe, protracted suffering in affected dogs.
Fortunately, the formation of mats can be prevented through regular brushing of medium to long-haired dogs and cats.
Some animals aren't easy to brush, and may require regular trips to the groomer or veterinarian.
Where mats do form, it is important to try to remove these early.
There are specialised brushes designed to break mats down, but they need to be used carefully to ensure minimal traction on the mats, which can hurt animals.
Extreme care should be taken when removing mats, as they can be closely attached to the skin.
Veterinarians commonly treat lacerations resulting from people trying to cut mats out of their animal's coat with scissors, not realising that there is skin attached. If in doubt, ask your groomer or veterinarian.
In addition to regular brushing, long-haired cats may require a seasonal full-body clip to help reduce matting and associated fur balls.
Mats may be more likely to form in some areas of the body - for example, behind the ears, around the eyes and around the bottom.
Your groomer or veterinary team may be able to perform a regional clip to address these areas.
If you are planning on acquiring a companion animal, it is important to understand whether and how often that animal will require grooming.
For example, some animals require a regular groom every four to six weeks to maintain a healthy coat. Animals with skin conditions may require more frequent grooming.
Reference: WATSON, E. & NIESTAT, L. 2021. Osseous lesions in the distal extremities of dogs with strangulating hair mats. Veterinary Radiology & Ultrasound, 62, 37-43.
Dr Anne Quain BVSc (Hons), MANZCVS (Animal Welfare), Dip ECAWBM (AWSEL) is a lecturer at the Sydney School of Veterinary Science and a practising veterinarian.