Methods to Safely Untangle and Brush Out Matted Dog Hair

by K Marie Alto December 29, 2021 9 min read

Methods to Safely Untangle and Brush Out Matted Dog Hair

Matted fur can be a fact of life for our fur babies, and it can seem to spring out of nowhere if you haven't been paying the right kind of attention.

Whether you've rescued a stray and want to get their fur under control, or you're just dealing with the occasional mat from your pooch's active lifestyle, dealing with mats is a skill every dog parent needs to know.

Why Mats Form (And Why They're Bad)

Much like our own hair, over time, dog fur can wrap around itself, tangle up, and otherwise form a knotted clump. Dog hair tangles happen most frequently where there's rubbing or movement, like under the collar and between the legs.  

Mats can also form as a natural part of life. Puppies growing up will shed their adolescent coats and grow in adult coats, and that shedding can lead to mats. Long-haired breeds are more prone to mats as well, for obvious reasons.

Mats grow over time as more and more fur gets wrapped up in the clump. Mats can also gather fur that would otherwise be shed, making the mat worse. On top of that, dirt and grime, burrs, leaves, and other debris from outside can all either start or contribute to a mat. Anyone who has ever carefully brushed out a mat, only to find a bit of twig or a burr at the center of it, knows exactly what we mean.

Why Mats Form

Mats are bad for your fur baby for several reasons.  

  • They end up tight, which pulls on your fur baby's skin and can irritate or weaken it.
  • They pull out otherwise healthy fur, which can lead to bald spots in extreme cases.
  • They can block moisture and oxygen from reaching the skin, making it more prone to damage.
  • They can foster parasites and infections, which can be very damaging to your fur baby's health.

Obviously, it's always best to adopt a stance of preventative maintenance. Untangling mats before they become a problem is the best way to avoid having to shave part of your fur baby or take them to the vet to deal with an infection.

So, how do you untangle mats?

Step 0: Learn the Pro Tips

The first thing to do as part of the dematting process is learning the pro tips that help groomers do it perfectly every time. Some of these might be obvious to you, but someone out there will have overlooked it, so forgive us if a tip or two seems too basic. No one is born knowing how to handle a dog; we all have to learn somewhere.

Dematting Pro Tips

Don't forget to apply treats, praise, and pets during the process.

Grooming and especially mat removal can be a stressful process for your fur baby. Mats can be very tight and unpleasant to brush out, and that's not even getting into the stress and negative conditioning they may have experienced in the past. If your fur baby is anxious, restless, or unhappy with being groomed, spend some time setting the stage.

Treats, praise, and pets can all be good ways to make the brushing and grooming experience a little better. Just make sure not to go overboard; you don't want to rile them up; they'll be that much harder to handle. You can also consider something like CBD to calm down some of the more anxious canines out there.

Work your fingers under the mat to minimize pulling.

Mats are often very tight, so brushing them can pull against the skin. If the mat has been there for a while, this can be irritating and painful. If you can work your hand under the mat, you can hold it firmly so that any tugging from your brushing is insulated by your hand's pressure. Just don't try to do this with a mat that's too tight to the skin; otherwise, you'll be pulling on it and probably ripping out fur, which is unpleasant for everyone involved. Only do this if it's fairly easy to do.

Consider picking up a mat splitter.

A mat splitter is a special kind of brush that incorporates what is, essentially, a serrated blade. Some of them look like rakes, while others are single blades and look more like emergency seat belt cutters. They're usually designed so that they're safe for your fur baby, though they can still be sharp enough to cut your pup or your hands if you aren't careful.  

To use a mat splitter, follow the natural path of your canine companion's fur to cut the mat down the middle or into parts. Generally, this will be cutting through tangled but already shed fur, and leaving most of the still-intact fur alone.  

A word of caution here, if you choose to cut a mat with a sharp pair of scissors, only do so if you can put your hand between the mat and your pup’s skin.  Never cut a mat with the tip of the scissors toward the skin as you risk cutting your fur baby along with the mat.

Get your fur baby used to grooming early.

If you've just adopted a new puppy, this is the perfect time to train them to accept grooming happily and calmly. Older dogs can be harder to train, especially if they've had bad experiences in the past. The sooner you can get your pup used to grooming, the better off you'll both be.

Remove mats before bathing your canine friend.

Mats end up working like a sponge. If you try to bathe your dog and then work on the mat when it's wet, you'll find that it's only gotten tighter and harder to handle. Plus, the act of drying your dog can make mats worse and even create more if you're not careful.

Maintain a regular brushing schedule to avoid mats in the future.

You'll want to brush your fur baby on a weekly basis, or more often depending on the kind of coat they have. This includes dogs that are "non-shedding," like poodles, who need help removing loose hair. Talk to a grooming specialist to learn exactly how often you should brush, and make sure to inspect for mats forming daily.

Now that the pro tips are out of the way, let's talk about dealing with a mat you've found.

Step 1: Analyze the Situation

The first thing to do is figure out how bad the mat is.

Analyze the Situation

How large is it? Smaller mats are easier to deal with, while larger mats will take longer and may require more extreme treatment.

How tight is the mat? Tighter mats will require more time and effort to work out, while looser mats can be brushed away more easily.

Are there signs of debris? If the mat is tangled around a twig or burr, you'll need to be careful handling it and might need to trim it out, depending on how tangled up it is.

Is there any sign of damage? Red skin, a bad smell, blood, or irritation can indicate something worse going on than just a mat. Don't try to brush out these mats; take your pup to the vet first.

Very bad mats may need shaving or a lotof work that a professional groomer might be better suited to handle. Smaller, everyday can easily be handled at home.

Step 2: Gather Your Tools

To successfully remove a mat, you will need the right tools.

 

Gather Your Tools

While these can vary, you'll always want a few core supplies on hand.

  • Brushes. Similar to a slicker brush, but much gentler on the skin, a Pin Bristle Brush can do the initial dematting. A Boar Bristle Brush can be used after to remove all of the excess shed fur.
  • A mat splitter. This can be essential for handling larger or tighter mats.
  • Detangling treatment. Some conditioners and shampoos have detangling ingredients, but an oil-based spray or cream that you can work into the mat to loosen it up and make the fur slippery enough to detangle is generally more effective. In a pinch, try working corn starch into the mat before brushing.
  • Additional tools. An undercoat rake is useful for clearing away shed hair on thicker, longer-furred dogs. A metal comb can also be useful for working at the edges of a very stubborn mat.
  • A guidebook. For example, Dog Grooming 101 is a good resource for many aspects of caring for your fur baby, including handling mats.

You'll want to keep these tools on hand wherever you're going to be grooming your fur baby. You may also want additional supplies, like a comfortable cushion or chair for you, access to water and a towel, and so on.  

Step 3: Apply a Detangler Product

Once you've gathered your tools and gotten settled with your fur baby, it's time to start working on any mats. The first thing to do is apply your detangling product. Often, you'll want to spray or pour the product directly on the mat and then work it in gently with your hands.  

Apply Detangler Product

Depending on the product, you might be able to start work immediately, others will recommend that you let it soak in for a few minutes before you get to working on the mat. Likewise, you may need to reapply the product every so often to deeper layers of the mat. Make sure to read the instructions on your product of choice.

Step 4: Work on the Mat with Your Hands

Your hands aren't as effective as a brush at removing tangled hair, but they area lot gentler. Starting at the outer edges, start working at detangling the mat manually. You'll be able to pull some fur out, isolate particularly egregious knots, and potentially even break up the mat into smaller and more manageable chunks.

Work Mat With Hands

You probably won't be able to handle the entire mat just by hand unless it's relatively minimal. You will, however, be able to feel it out and get a sense for what to do next, especially once you have more experience with handling mats.

Step 5: Brush Carefully

Once you've done all you can with your hands, it's time to take a brush (or comb) to the problem. Work from the edges inward, starting with the "bottom," as oriented based on the direction your doggo's fur lays.

Brushing Dog Carefully

Just like brushing out long hair on a person, you need to start at the tips and work upwards. This helps ensure that you're not tightening other knots along the way or condensing the mat into something harder to handle.

Step 6: Know When to Trim

When brushing regularly, and if you and your pup are patient, you will almost never need to trim out a mat. That’s the beauty of regularly brushing your dog, which we highly recommend pet parents do.

Trimming should be considered a last resort in almost all cases. However, if you find the mat is particularly stubborn, or if it's wrapped around a piece of debris that you can't get out on your own, a trim might be the solution.

Know When To Trim

We always recommend leaving trimming to your groomer or vet for the safety of your pup.  If there are any signs of blood or infection beneath the mat, skip the groomer and head straight to your vet. 

If you decide you're going to trim away the mat yourself, place your hand between the skin and the scissors and trim slowly away from the skin.  After each small snip, switch to your brush to see if you’ve loosened things up.  

Step 7: Finish with a Bath

Above, we mentioned that you should never bathe your fur baby before working on a mat because it can make mats worse. Conversely, it's great to always finish up grooming with a bath. Not only do some dogs enjoy it (making it a reward for their patience), it also helps remove further shed hair and can help prevent future mats from forming. Of course, you need to bathe your fur baby properly to get these benefits.

Finish With Bath

So there you have it; a complete process for removing stubborn mats from your dog's fur. Most of the time, you can handle pretty much anything your dog's fur can come up with. It's only in extreme circumstances that you'll need some stronger treatment, at which point it's often better to let a professional groomer handle it.

Did you enjoy this guide?  You can check out many more dog and cat care guides here

Now to you, our dog parent readers! Has your furry friend ever given you much trouble when it came to detangling or brushing their fur? Were you previously aware of how to untangle a mat? If not, are you feeling a little more confident now? Be sure to leave all your thoughts and stories below! We'd love to hear from each and every one of you. 

K Marie Alto
K Marie Alto

K. Marie is an animal lover, wife, kitty mom, dog auntie, writer and co-founder of Toe Beans, a proud American family-owned online boutique pet supplies store focused on the improvement of the life of furry family members via pet parent education, better products, and advocacy. She has over 20 years of experience as a pet momma. She loves sharing her personal journey and experience as a pet parent via her blog and Facebook page where she currently has more than 19K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-).


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