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Cat Paw Anatomy 101: Everything You Need to Know

cat paw anatomy -all you need to know

When it comes to their paws, cats are a lot like people – each has their own unique set of fingerprints. Just as humans leave behind a trail of clues with their distinct prints, so too, do cats with their paw pads. Each print is as individual as the cat itself, and can offer valuable insights into its health, habits and lifestyle.

The cat paw is a complex and fascinating structure. It is made up of several different parts, each of which serves a specific purpose. In this article, we’ll take a look at the different parts of the cat paw and how they help it to walk, hunt, and climb. We’ll also touch on the importance of claws in protecting cats from predators. Finally, we’ll discuss onychectomy (declawing) and why it is such a controversial issue.

Paws are a cat’s most important tool, and they deserve some respect.

Detailed anatomy of a cat paw

The cat paw is an amazing and complex structure. Each paw has five toes, or digits, each with its own claw. The pads on the bottom of the paw act as shock absorbers and provide traction. The bones, muscles, tendons, and ligaments all work together to allow the cat to move gracefully and efficiently.

cat paw anatomy diagram
Cat paw anatomy paw infographic – Copyright Ruffle Snuffle®

Normal cats have 18 toes—five on each front limb and four on each hind limb. The extra toe on the front paw is called the dewclaw. It is slightly on the inner side and does not touch the ground.

Do you know these fun cat facts? x
Do you know these fun cat facts?

Like dogs, the cats also have four digital pads for each toe, aka toe beans, because of their appearance with one big metacarpal pad (front paw) and metatarsal pad (hind paw) to bear most of the cat’s weight. The pads can also detect surrounding things like surfaces and evaluate vibrations of approaching prey. Isn’t that brilliant!

Moreover, the pads are fairly robust and can easily stand rough, cold, and hot surfaces. But prolonged exposure to cold and hot surfaces can cause damage. My Siamese cat used to sit on the ledge on our woodburner, when it was lit! I’ve no idea how she didn’t burn her feet. We used to say she had ‘asbestos paws’.

There is also a carpal pad on the back of the leg; it does not bear any weight but provide traction when the cat jumps down on slippery surfaces and downhill.

The cat paw consists of the following parts:

Toes

Cats have five toes on each paw, unlike other animals which typically have four. The extra toe (known as the dewclaw) is located on the inner side of the paw and is not usually visible.

Polydactylism, or the presence of extra toes, is relatively common in cats and is considered a harmless genetic mutation. Some people believe that polydactyl cats are more agile and have better balance, but there is no scientific evidence to support this claim.

Polydactyl cat feet
Polydactyl cat feet

Paw pads

The paw pads are the soft, spongy tissues on the bottom of the paw. They act as shock absorbers and help to provide traction when cats walk or run. The pads are also covered in tiny bumps called papillae, which help to increase the surface area of the paw and improve traction. The pads also provide insulation against cold temperatures and protect the bones and tendons from injury.

Claws

All cats have claws, which are made of keratin (the same material that hair and nails are made of). Cats use their claws for a variety of purposes, including hunting, climbing, and self-defense.

Claws help cats to grip prey and keep them from escaping. In addition, the claws act as a natural weapon against predators. They are sharpened by the cats themselves and worn down through regular use and wear. However, if your cat is an indoor cat, their claws may need trimming by a cat groomer or a vet if they become overgrown. Providing scratching posts around your house will help (and save your stair carpet and furniture!).

Keep kitty's claws trimmed to avoid problems
Keep kitty’s claws trimmed to avoid problems

The claws are protected by a sheath of skin when they are not in use. When a cat wants to use its claws, it extends them by retracting the sheath.

How cats extend and retract their claws - diagram
How cats extend and retract their claws

Onychectomy, or declawing, is a surgical procedure in which the claws are removed. This is a controversial practice, as it can be painful and debilitating for cats. In some cases, it can even lead to behavior problems such as biting or litter box avoidance.

Cats claws are sharp and lethal weapons
Cats claws are sharp and lethal weapons

Fur

The fur on the paw helps to keep it warm and provides additional traction. The fur also helps to protect the pads from injury.

Bones and muscles in a cat’s paw

The actual structure of a cat’s foot is incredibly complex and allows them to walk the way they do. The bones of the front and hind paws are not the same. They have a lot of bones, muscles, nerves, and blood vessels but explaining them all in detail needs a long explanation. So, here is a simplified version.

The front paw has seven carpal bones, five metacarpal, five digits/phalanges, and five sesamoid bones. Attached with the group of extensor and flexor muscles. The extensor muscles allow phalanges or digits to extend. While, flexor muscles allow the paws to bend like the fingers of a human hand.

The hind paw is pretty similar. Instead of carpal, they have seven tarsal bones in the hind paw, with four metatarsal and corresponding phalanges and sesamoid bones. The muscles situation is quite similar; the paws have both extensor and flexor muscles to extend and bend the feet.

Bones in your cats legs - same as a dog, but cats walk on their tip toes.
Bones in your cats legs – same as a dog, but cats walk on their tip toes.

How a cat walks

Cats are digitigrade walkers, meaning that they walk on their toes. This gives them their characteristic “proud” gait and allows them to move quickly and quietly. When cats walk, they place their weight alternately on the left and right paws. This helps them to keep their balance and avoid making too much noise, hence the term “cat burglar”.

Cat gait is unique

Did you know, your cat does have a paw preference as to whether they use their right or left paw dominantly, like humans? Known as laterality , this has been studied in cats and it has been found that around 60-70% of cats are right paw dominant, while the rest are left paw dominant. It is not fully understood why this is, but it may have something to do with the way the brain is structured. Studies have shown that there are differences in the way the two hemispheres of the brain process information in right and left paw dominant cats. However, more research is needed to confirm this theory.

Cats are digitigrade walkers, meaning that they walk on their toes.
Cats are digitigrade walkers, meaning that they walk on their toes.

Scent and Sweat Glands

Cat paws have sweat glands between each toe, the glands emit a scent, and every cat has a different one. They use it to mark their area.

If you ever see a cat scratching a surface, it may be because of another cat’s scent. They try to remove it to claim it as their own.

Moreover, cats also have sweat glands on their paws to regulate the paw’s temperature. The glands also sweat when they are anxious, scared, or stressed.

Every cat has a unique scent emitted from their glands in the paw.
Every cat has a unique scent emitted from their glands in the paw.

Colors of Cat Paw Pads

Cats do not have a particular paw pad color. Mostly the color is same as their coat. If the cat has a dark coat, the paw pads will be dark in color and vice versa. Similarly, a multi-color cat can have multi-colored paw pads, or their color can range anywhere from black to pink.

Paw pads come in all sorts of colours and their print is unique to each cat. Like fingerprints.
Paw pads come in all sorts of colours and their print is unique to each cat. Like fingerprints.

Cat paw functions

Cat paw is far more functional than just providing traction, shock absorption, and balance. Cats use them for grooming and drinking water.

Some essential functions of a cat paw include

  • Climbing
  • Digging
  • Traction
  • Self-defense
  • Hunting
  • Scratching
  • Grooming
  • Drinking

If you have a cat, you must have seen them licking their pads and rubbing them on their head, ear, and face to wash them. Cats also use their paws for drinking water by dripping them in a water bowl and then licking water.

They are brilliant at using their paws to manipulate different objects. For example, turning a door knob or opening a drawer. They are also nifty at swiping food off a plate ( or in our case a whole roast beef joint!) with their clever little paws.

Moreover, they are a communication device; as mentioned above, the glands release pheromones to deliver messages and mark their territory.

Paws and claws help grip, balance and navigate all sorts of terrain!
Paws and claws help grip, balance and navigate all sorts of terrain!

Declawing a cat ( onychectomy)

Onychectomy is a controversial surgical procedure in which the claws are removed. This is typically done for aesthetic reasons (to avoid scratches on furniture, etc.) or because some people believe it makes cats less likely to scratch themselves or others. However, there are many potential risks associated with declawing, including infection, nerve damage, and behavioral problems. Therefore, it is important to weigh the pros and cons of declawing before making a decision.

Cat declawing is already illegal in many countries in Europe, including the UK, as well as Brazil, Israel, Australia and New Zealand. In Canada cat declawing is banned in many provinces with more being added regularly.

Signs of a healthy cat paw

There are several things you can look for to determine if your cat’s paws are healthy. The nails should be trimmed regularly and the pads should be free of cracks or cuts.

You can tell if your cat’s paws are healthy by looking for the following signs:

  • The pads should be soft and free of cracks or abrasions.
  • The claws should be intact and not overgrown.
  • There should be no discharge or redness around the toes.

If you notice any changes in your cat’s paw health, such as excessive licking or limping, be sure to take them to the vet for an examination. By understanding the anatomy of the cat paw, you can help to keep your feline friend healthy and happy.

Clean, healthy cat paw - it's so cute!
Clean, healthy cat paw – it’s so cute!

Cat Paw Problems

The paws, like any other part of the body, may be afflicted by illness or injury. Signs might include lameness, unwillingness to put weight on the injured foot, edema (swelling), discomfort, discharge, and hair loss.

  • Plasma-cell pododermatitis: This is a rare inflammatory illness that affects the paw pads and causes them to be soft, swollen and painful.
  • Tumors: A tumour is a type of abnormality that may be primary or secondary. The skin, bones, and other tissues in the foot can all be affected by several types of tumors.
  • Pemphigus: A uncommon autoimmune disease in cats, characterized by an overabundance of autoantibodies that attacks the cats own tissues resulting in red and inflamed pimples on the afflicted region.
  • Frostbite: Damage or death of the skin and underlying tissues as a result of freezing temperatures. The water in the tissues freezes when exposed to severe cold, resulting in cell rupture.
  • Burns (chemical or thermal): Paws may be damaged by chemicals or heat, such as a hotplate or a tar road on a hot day. Keep cats indoors during severe weather and maintain supervision of them around stoves and chemical spills.
  • Abscess: An abscess is a collection of pus encased by a wall that forms when bacteria enter the wound via a bite from another cat. An abscess is extremely distressing to the cat and necessitates incision and antibiotic therapy.
  • Ringworm: A fungus infection that may affect the skin and fur on the entire body.
  • Foreign Body: Sharp or needle-like object that embeds in the skin, often between the toes. Broken glass and grass awns are examples of common foreign bodies. A foreign body can cause an abscess or skin infection if left untreated.
  • Ingrown claws: Senior cats are more likely to get ingrown claws, which is caused when the claw grows too long and curls back into the soft paw pad.
  • Lung-digit syndrome: Metastatic lesions affecting the toes due to the spread of an often undiagnosed tumour from the lungs.

Conclusion

Cats have incredible survival instincts that allow them to adapt to their environment, and being able to use their paws for hunting is one of the biggest reasons why cats are so successful. Cats can be sneaky hunters because they walk on their toes and this makes it difficult for prey animals such as mice or rats to hear them coming. They also have retractable claws which help when catching prey by allowing them to grip more easily around the body of whatever animal they’re hunting. And just like many human athletes who tape up before an event, cats will often lick their paws in order to keep them moist and sensitive for the hunt! So next time you pet your kitty, take a moment to appreciate their amazing paws.

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