It's an unfortunate reality of grooming that sometimes pets' coats are not cared for well enough to prevent the dreaded matted strip. Dreaded by groomers not because the "poor thing will be so ugly/cold/itchy afterwards," but because the animal has been suffering with that uncomfortable pelt for so many months, because it's tricky to safely remove, and because it can be very challenging to help clients understand 1. why their pet has to be shaved 2. how to avoid common after-shaving problems 3. how to keep their pet in good condition in the future. Often, the groomer is viewed as "the bad guy" when, in reality, we've performed a great and difficult service on behalf of an animal whose coat has been improperly cared for for far too long.
So why did the pet have to be shaved? Simply put, mats are bad news. And pelts are mats gone wild. Pelts are when mats make friends with their neighbors and conspire to take over the world. They're painful because hair from one side of the animal is tied, through that network of pelting, to hair on the other side of the animal and every day, those hairs pull on each other more and more. It happens gradually, so pets tend not to complain a whole lot when their skin starts getting tugged at from every angle and body parts that should be free to move start to get locked into place, and the only relief that comes naturally is when those hairs finally give up and break or tear themselves out at the root.
Mats are also bad news because they're great little hide-aways for dirt, moisture, and the bacteria and fungi and parasites that like to live in that kind of environment. Any break in the skin -- scratches, sores, or other normal skin damage -- will have a tough time healing underneath a pelt and it's uncover old, unhealing injuries, rashes and other skin troubles during a shavedown.
So pelts are definitely bad. Mats are not good either. But why do they have to be shaved, specifically? The simple answer is: shaving is the most humane way to remove mats. You can brush out a tangle with the right tools and conditioners. But a tangle of tangles that covers a square inch or more of an animals' body? No, those need shaving. Even if an animal is willing to tolerate the kind of tug-tug-tugging that dematting requires, it's simply unkind at best. And why so short? That's got a short answer, too. You can't push a clipper blade through a mat. It has to go underneath. If the matting is tight to the skin (and it usually is), the blade has to be short enough to slip underneath. There's a layer of hair, sometimes only millimeters long, right along the skin, that isn't part of the mat. That's where a groomer has to clip.
After we've accepted that the coat has to come off, and it has to be short, what are the common after-strip troubles? As I mentioned before, matted shave downs often reveal pre-existing skin conditions and those need to be dealt with. Luckily, most skin problems caused by matting clear up quickly on their own after the mats are gone. It's always a good idea, however, to consult with your veterinarian. Sometimes pets get itchy after a shave and can scratch themselves too much and do damage. Often, they were itchy all along, but the pelting prevented their scratching from doing any good and now that they can actually get to their skin, they get a little too eager and hurt themselves. Any close shave always carries some risk of clipper irritation (sometimes called "clipper burn" -- which does not mean that your pet was actually burned with a hot blade). Sensitive sanitary areas are particularly vulnerable to after-grooming itch and pets can lick and rub themselves to infection if they are allowed to fuss too much.
There are a number of ways to help a pet get through the itchiness. You should consult your veterinarian if it is severe or lasts longer than a day. They can prescribe antihistamines that will help make your pet more comfortable. In most cases, though, simply watching your pet and distracting him from fussing can help get him over the itchiness quickly. The more they scratch, the more it itches, so keeping your pet busy with fun games and treats that first day can do a world of good. Many vets will also recommend anti-histamine creams or anti-itch sprays that you can apply topically to itchy areas. For a simply home remedy, try 1 part vinegar and 1 part water in a spray bottle. Spritz lightly on itchy spots to help sooth itching and to prevent infection. Do not use on open sores or damaged skin -- it will sting! Also never use it near your pet's eyes. You can also use an Elizabethan collar (lampshade, as some call them) or put a t-shirt on your pet to block them from biting or scratching themselves until the itching calms down.
The weather also becomes a consideration when your pet has been recently shaved. Naked pets are more susceptible to cold and should wear a sweater when they go out in the cold and not kept out longer than necessary. In warm weather, pets are more at risk for heat stroke and extra attention should be given to keeping them cool. They should not spend more time than necessary outside in very hot weather, should always have plenty of water, and should be watched carefully for signs of heat stroke. You can spray them with water, wrap them in wet or cold towels, and give them stone or marble tiles to lay on to help keep their body temperature cool. Also, pets don't tan, so keep exposed skin out of the sun to avoid sunburn!
Another possible side-effect of a matted strip is the emotional factor. Pets are not sensitive to their appearance and won't ever act depressed because they think they look bad, but they will respond to the way their human family reacts to them. Cats in particular are notorious for hiding from their families after being laughed at by the kids. Pets read our emotions better than we do sometimes, so remember that if you hate the way your pet looks shaved, you may be projecting that emotion. Make sure your pet knows that you are happy to see him no matter what you think about his present haircut! Also, sometimes the newly exposed skin feels so odd to a pet that they will act strangely (scooting, hiding, acting fearful) after a shave. They don't really understand that they've gone from having 2 inches of matted coat to having 2 millimeters of peach fuzz -- they just know that they feel strange sensations on their body now with every passing breeze -- and some pets can be strongly affected by this. Try to ignore these reactions as much as possible but do be sure to lavish your pet with treats and praise when he forgets about the oddness and acts normally. That will help him adjust much more quickly. Consult your veterinarian if you have any ongoing concerns.
The best cure is prevention, so the best time to start learning about how to take care of your pet's coat properly is right now. If your pet is matted, have him shaved. Then start right away getting him used to being combed and brushed and groomed properly. Put your pet on a regular professional grooming schedule (talk to your groomer about what the best schedule is for your pet) and get in the habit of combing at home as well. For more info on preventing mats, click here. A professional groomer is your partner in your pet's care, so use that resource wisely and remember, we want what's best for your pet as much as you do. If you gotta shave, let's make it as painless as possible for everyone involved.