How do I deal with a senior cat with matted fur?

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Throughout the course of their lives, long-haired cats typically require a lot more maintenance than shorter-haired cats. It’s not uncommon for long-haired cats to get burrs or food stuck in their fur. Good ownership of a long-haired cat means frequent brushing and occasionally cutting out stuff that might get stuck in their fur. As your long-haired cat ages though, you might notice they’re getting more and more mats, even with regular brushing. What causes this? The following post will explain why you notice more mats in long-haired senior cats, what that means about your cat’s health, and how you can help your cat stay more comfortable.

Who do old cats get matted fur?

Cats tongues are pretty fascinatingly built. If you’ve ever had a cat lick you, you know their tongues are much rougher than human tongues are. Many people describe them as “sandpaper” feeling. That’s because cats’ tongues have barbs on them. These barbs are purely to help with grooming. If you watch a long-haired cat groom, you’ll see sometimes their fur will kind of get caught on these tongue barbs and they’ll need to crank their neck back to get the fur off their tongue. This is similar to brushing a snarl out of your hair, where if you reach a tangle the brush or comb will get stuck. These tongue barbs detangle, remove debris, and generally keep them clean and their fur soft and shiny.

As cats get older, they’ll groom less. That means they won’t be able to detangle or clean their own fur as well, leading them more open to developing mats or stinky, dirty fur. You’ll probably notice mats sooner in outdoor cats, but even indoor cats will start getting matted pretty quickly as they stop grooming themselves.

Why do cats get less fastidious about grooming as they age?

The most obvious answer to why old cats get more mats is simple – they groom less, or not as well. This isn’t just a feature of long-haired cats. You’ll notice that short-haired cats shed more, and have less glossy coats than they did in their younger years. Even healthy seniors will show less care in the grooming regimen than they had as a younger cat. The average adult cat who has not reached their senior years spends an estimated 50% of their waking hours doing some form of grooming – whether cleaning their fur or nibbling on their claws. Cleanliness is extremely important to cats! So why do older cats groom less?

Loss of Flexibility

This one is pretty obvious – just like humans, cats become less flexible as they get older. I’m already noticing in my 30s that I have a harder time touching my toes than I did just 5 years ago. Cats experience the same aging symptom. It takes a lot more effort for a 12-year-old cat to clean its rear end than it does for a 6-year-old cat. This on its own is nothing to be worried about unless your cat seems to be in excruciating pain, or the loss of flexibility seems very sudden. If last week your 10-year-old cat was grooming no problem, and this week cat barely reach its belly, it’s a good idea to reach out to the vet.

Arthritis

If your cat seems to be in pain, rather than just losing flexibility, arthritis is certainly a concern. Arthritis is an inflammation of the joints that can affect cats at any point in their lives, but it’s very common in senior kitties. Other symptoms of arthritis in cats include the following:

  • Limping
  • Biting, chewing or licking parts of the body – pain in the joints makes cats want to nibble at those parts of the body.
  • Loss of energy – your cat will likely be sleeping or less active than normal.
  • Crankiness – nipping at you if you touch a certain part of their body, or going from cheery to hissy out of nowhere.
  • Clumsiness – you might notice your cat is stumbling around more. Stiff joints can cause your cat to be less graceful.

If you suspect arthritis, you’ll want to take a trip to the vet. A diagnosis will be made based on a physical exam. There’s no cure for arthritis, but your vet can prescribe medications to control pain and inflammation. In addition, there are lots of supplements out there for diabetic kitties. Cosequin treats are a popular one a lot of vets recommend. Salmon oil is another supplement that cats tend to go crazy for – it’s great for their joints as well as their fur, so it can help out matted cats in more than one way.

Dental Issues

Dental issues are another common medical issue cats develop as they age. Many cats will develop tooth decay, gum disease or broken teeth. If they have a painful mouth, they obviously won’t want to use their mouth to groom their fur, causing them to become more matted. Like people, cats need dental cleaning and regular mouth care. If you can, start brushing your cat’s teeth. There are lots of cat toothpastes on the market that cats actually seem to enjoy.

Matted fur is a common problem caused by health issues as cat get older.

Urinary, Bladder or Kidney Issues

Are you noticing more mats around your cat’s tail or backside, or even between their back legs? If so, that’s a sign your cat is having issues cleaning after using the bathroom. This can often be a sign of urinary or kidney issues. These issues can cause your cat to use the bathroom more than normal, which means more frequent post-bathroom cleanup. If your cat isn’t feeling great in the first place from whatever they’re fighting, they might get more lazy about cleaning up after every bathroom visit, meaning more mats.

If you suspect a bathroom issue is at play, it’s urgent you take your kitty to the vet as soon as possible. Urinary and kidney issues are extremely serious and need medical treatment.

If urinary issues are an ongoing problem, Purina makes a fantastic urinary health-specific food that lots of vets recommend.

Stress

Sometimes cats will overgroom when they’re stressed, to the point where they’ll have bald patches and are bleeding. In other cases, they might be so on-edge they won’t take the time to groom themselves. If you’ve recently had a big life change that might cause stress in your cat, like a big movee, a new pet, or a new roommate, that might be causing stress that’s keeping your cat from grooming itself.

How do you treat matted fur in a senior cat?

Once you and your vet have any underlying health issues figured out, how can you go about helping your cat with his or her mats? Regular grooming can definitely help out with your cats mats and general dull-looking fur.

You’ll want several types of brushes for this intensive type of grooming:

Rubber cat brush
A rubber cat brush like this is great for general brushing. It’s soft, so it won’t irritate your cat’s skin. It’ll graze over mats and not tug on them. They’re also very easy to clean, you can just use soap and water. I like spritzing these brushes with water, because it collects loose hair better so it doesn’t end up all over you or your floor.
Soft Pin Slicker Brush
These brushes have wire bristles that are soft but better for detangling than the rubber brushes. These will get out smaller tangles.


Detangling comb
This is what you will use to actually remove mats. This has longer bristles and a blade that will help work through mats.

How to groom your matted senior cat with brushes.

    1. Start any grooming session by patting your hat from head to tail, trying to figure out where the worst mats are. This also gets your cat in a calm, relaxed state. If you have an especially anxious cat, Feliway plugins are a great way of getting your cat into a calm, relaxed state. It makes it much more difficult to groom your cat if they’re in an anxious state. Doing this after feeding is also a good idea since a well-fed cat will be sleepier and easier to deal with.
    2. Use the rubber brush to start the grooming process. Most cats love these brushes, they’ll probably really get into it at this point. You should be able to gently brush over the mats with this brush. If you notice your cat flinching when you get near the mats, avoid them.
    3. Next, use the soft pin slicker brush. You’ll want to start with gentle pressure, as your cat’s skin might be sensitive. If they want you to go firmer (I know my cat LOVES a firm brushing with this brush!) they’ll really lean into it. Avoid using it around their eyes, and don’t go too close to any big mats with this. You can use this brush to detangle smaller tangles and mats though.
    4. Next, grab your detangling comb and gently start working on any mats. If your cat pulls away or hisses, skip that one and move onto another. These combs in combination with the blades will help you work through bigger mats. You don’t want your cat to fear this comb though, so if they seem uncomfortable stop immediately.
    5. If you’re having trouble using just the tool, you can sprinkle a little cornstarch onto the mat and work at it with your fingers. Cornstarch helps break up the mat, and will also soothe the raw skin underneath the mat. Once you break up the mat a little with your fingers, it should be easier to comb out.
    6. Always end these grooming sessions with treats! Teaching your cat that being groomed is a good thing will make the experience easier for both of you.

The olive oil cat mat removal method

Does your cat have a mat that you can’t comb through, or is he or she not letting you touch those mats? This is a crazy-sounding method, but lots of cat owners swear by it. For this method, you’ll need a needleless syringe (you can get one from the drug store, just ask the pharmacist, sometimes they’ll give you one for free), and any kind of olive oil. You’ll want the olive oil to be room temperature, as cats have very sensitive skin and cold oil can be uncomfortable, especially on skin that’s already sensitive from the mat.

Fill the syringe with oil, and apply the oil to the base of the mat. Better to be too much oil than too little, it’s perfectly safe if the cat licks it off. In a few days, the mat should fall off on its own. If not, reapply the oil in a few days. Repeat until the mat finally comes off. 

Just handle one mat at a time with this method, you don’t want your cat covered in oil.

Always give your cat treats after doing something like this! The better the mat session ends, the more likely they’ll be to let you do it again without a fit.

What if grooming at home isn’t going well?

If you’re having trouble grooming your cat on your own, it might be time to call in reinforcements. A professional groomer can help remove mats, and regular grooming can prevent them from happening in the future. Look for a reputable groomer with really good reviews online. Not all groomers are created equal!

Be aware, if your cat’s mats are really bad, the groomer might decide shaving is the best option. If your groomer does decide to shave your cat, you might need to keep your cat’s body temperature regulated a bit more carefully, especially if you have a thin older cat.

How to prevent mats in your senior cat

Now that you have mats handled, how can you prevent them in the future? Thankfully, you can prevent your cat from going through this again with regular care.

  1. Make sure your cat is seeing the vet regularly. Most vets suggest that senior cats see the vet twice a year. This way if a medical issue is popping up that might cause your cat to develop mats, you can nip it in the bud, or treat it before it gets worse.
  2. Regularly brush your cat using a rubber brush. If you can do this every day, that’s best.
  3. If you have a long-haired cat, invest in an undercoat brush. The undercoat is where mats start, and it’s so dense you might not notice them until they get really bad. Undercoat brushes get deep into that thick layer of fur, removes tangles and small mats, and removes loose fur that’s stuck in the undercoat and causes mats. You’ll be amazed at how much fur comes out the first time you use that brush!
  4. Feed your cat a high-quality food with omegas and vitamin E. This will keep your cat’s skin and fur healthy.

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