Cat Paw Anatomy: A Closer Look at Paw Structure

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 8 min read

Cat Paw Anatomy: A Closer Look at Paw Structure

Here at Toe Beans, you'd think I'd have taken a closer look at those sweet little paws, but somehow, I haven't yet. So, why don't I do that today? Let's look at the paws of our friendly feline companions, up close and personal.

The Toes

Each cat is different, unique, and beautiful, but most of them have pretty much the same feet. Most cats have five toes on their front paws and four on the back. Imagine your own feet without the little toe and your hands with smaller, almost vestigial thumbs, and you're on the right track.

Why do cats only have four toes on their back feet? There's no real reason for it; that's just how evolution worked out. It hasn't been evolutionarily advantageous to have more or fewer toes on the front or hind legs – sort of – so cats haven't evolved to have more or fewer toes.

The Toes Image by Toe Beans

There's one exception to this, which is polydactyly. Polydactyly is a genetic condition where a cat is born with extra toes. Sometimes it's one extra toe per foot, and sometimes it's more. The world record goes to Jake and Paws, two different cats (one Canadian and one American) who had 28 toes total. Usually, polydactyly only affects the front paws, so a cat will have four toes on the back feet and a whole lot more on the front.

Interestingly, polydactyl cats aren't necessarily evolutionarily advantaged. But, humans chose to attribute them with good luck, and they often were brought aboard ships as mousers and for good luck. In Europe, though, they were often hunted as witch familiars, those poor babies. Fortunately, we're beyond that these days and recognize it for what it is: a genetic mutation and nothing more.

In cats with a normal number of toes, the fifth "thumb" toe on the front leg is called a dew claw or dew toe. They're sort of like thumbs in that they're more flexible and usable as tools compared to their normal toes. When you see a kitty stretch out their toes and splay their claws, you can see how much range of motion they have.

Speaking of splaying out their toes, in between those toes is where the sweat glands live. Cats, like dogs, don't have sweat glands all over their bodies the way we do because sweat can't really evaporate when it's covered by fur. Cats can pant when they're overheated, but they will generally try to find a cool, shady place to rest instead. The sweat that comes out of their paws helps cool them as well by evaporating and cooling the blood vessels in their little toe beans.

The Claws

Cat claws are often viewed similarly to our fingernails, but they're a little different.

Our fingernails aren't connected to our bodies very well, which is why they can be torn off through accidents and why they grow in a straight line from the cuticle. Cat claws are made of the same kind of material, keratin (which is the same material that composes fur and our hair and nails too), but they actually grow directly out of the toe bones of the cat's toes.

Another difference is that a cat's claw is more of a tube than a flat line. For us, if a nail is trimmed too far back, it exposes the sensitive skin in the nail bed, but that's just about it. For a cat, there's a nerve and blood vessel in the middle of the claw called the "quick"; trimming too much of the claw can cut this, which is painful and will bleed. That's part of why you need to keep them calm when trimming their nails.

The Claws Image by Toe Beans

This is also why declawing is an inhumane practice and should be abandoned. It's bad enough if you imagine that you had to have your nails pulled off and the nailbed cauterized to prevent them from growing back. For cats, the only way to stop the nail from growing back is to cut off the bone it grows from, which is the equivalent of cutting off your fingertips at the last knuckle. It's a terrible thing to do!

Claws also grow from the inside out. They're layered like an onion, and the outer layers can be chipped or broken off. If a cat scratches a harder surface to sharpen their claws and mark their territory, they may even leave these shards behind. This is also why it's important not to cut too deep when you trim a cat's nails; they don't just grow outwards from the back, they grow outwards from the center, so they can remain sensitive for a lot longer than if we trim our own nails too much.

The Toe Beans

Those toe beans we love so much are technically called paw pads. Cats have three "sets" of paw pads or beans. One set is small and separate for each toe, and are called the digital pads. No, not because they're electronic or computerized; because they're part of the "digit" of the paw.

The second pad is the large one in the center of their paws. These are called the metacarpal pads, because they're positioned under the metacarpal bones in the paw. (They're also called the metatarsal pads for the back paws, since rear/lower digits are technically the tarsals rather than the carpals.)

Finally, they have a third pad, further back and up across from where the dew toe and dew claw are. This is the carpal pad, and they only exist on the front paws.

The Toe Beans Image by Toe Beans

What are the toe beans? Well, they aren't beans, that's for sure.

Paw pads are cushions that provide a soft surface for a cat to walk on and land from their jumps. They're made large of adipose tissue – which is stored fat – and collagen to bind it together. That's not all they are, though. The outer surface of the paw pads is a tougher skin that can withstand impacts and minor abrasions, though it can still be punctured if your cat steps on a thorn or a bit of broken glass or something of the sort. Inside each toe bean is a bundle of nerves, blood vessels to keep it all supplied with nutrients and healthy, and scent glands.

Scent glands are an important part of cat anatomy and behavior. They're sacs filled with a pheromone, something other cats can smell, and unique to the cat. They have these scent glands in their faces (which is why they rub their faces on everything), under their tails (to leave a scent behind when they do their business), and in their paws, which leave their scent when they knead and when they scratch. Pheromones are pretty complicated and fascinating, so I encourage further reading if biology interests you.

The Walk

A fun thing about how cats walk is what parts of their foot anatomy touch the ground.

In humans, when we walk, our heels, the balls of our feet, and our toes all touch the ground. This is called plantigrade walking. It's good for balance and stability and facilitates both a smoother walk and more flexibility in how we position ourselves. Other human-like animals that can walk upright also have similar kinds of walking. The Asian black bear, for example, can also walk plantigrade if it wants to.

Cats, dogs, and other animals with a similar skeleton and structure walk slightly differently. In these animals, the "heel" is actually raised; it's the part that sticks a bit backward and is an inch or so off the ground. Cats walk with the balls of their feet in the position where our heels would be and support themselves on the balls and toes. Since they're primarily supported by their digits, this is called digitigrade walking.

A Cat Walking Image by Toe Beans

There's a third kind of walking, in a way that is essentially tiptoe to us. These animals grow a bunch of support structures around their toes to form a relatively flat, broad surface to support their legs. Can you guess what kinds of animals walk in this style? Horses and elephants are a couple of examples.

The different structure of the foot, the array of muscles that support it, the resilience of the toe beans themselves; all of this combines with the fact that cats are small and light, and is what allows them to be so light on their feet, so agile, able to spring into motion, climb, jump, fall, and land without issue.

Care and Grooming

Cats are reputed to be able to keep themselves pretty clean, but it's still a good idea to groom your fur baby from time to time, to look for issues they can't deal with on their own, and to make sure they're healthy overall. Some cats, when they're sick or anxious, will over-groom or under-groom, and that can be a sign that you should bring them to the vet for a checkup.

Cat Care and Grooming Image by Toe Beans

So, when you clean and groom your kitty, what should you do?

Clean their paws with a damp, soft cloth.There probably won't be much visible dirt, but you can wipe away grim, pathogens, and oils, allowing your fur baby a clean start. You don't want to use harsh chemicals or cleaners, though; only use water or at most a mild soap, which you rinse away after. Remember, cats groom themselves with their tongues, so any residue you leave on their paws will likely be ingested.

Check for damage.Cuts, scrapes, swelling, oozing, bad smells, redness, rashes, and other issues can accumulate. If your cat is swiping at a stinging or biting insect, steps on a thorn, gets a sliver in their paw, or otherwise cuts or damages their poor toe beans, it can easily end up infected, and you need to have it looked at if it doesn't heal in short order. If your fur baby is limping, it can be a sign of an injury, so check that foot as well.

Checking the toe beans for signs of dry or cracked skin is also important. You usually don't need anything like a paw balm (those are better for dogs) but if they have damaged paw pads, you may need to help out.

Organic Paw Balm Image by Toe Beans

Trim the nails. You don't need to trim a cat's nails constantly – you only need to do it once or twice a month – but it can help keep shorter nails from catching on carpets, furniture, or anything else they're climbing on. It also means when they're playing with you and each other, or when they're kneading you, they won't be as prickly or at risk of accidentally scratching you.

Check between the toes.Sometimes, dirt and debris can get stuck between your fur baby's toes and cause them issues. Usually they can pick and lick this clean, but sometimes it's stubborn, and they may need assistance.

Do you need to trim their toe fur?This varies. Most short and even medium-coat cats don't need their fur to be trimmed unless there's an infection, injury, or other reason to get it out of the way. Longer-coat cats like Maine Coons might benefit from the occasional trim, but it's usually a rarity. They'll be fine unless that stray fur is causing problems, such as overheating.

What if your fur baby doesn't like you touching their feet?Unfortunately, this is common with cats, especially those who were strays before they were adopted. You can train them to be better about it, but it will take some time and plenty of treats. Don't try to force them or restrain them; that will just traumatize them and make it harder in the future.

Do you have any other questions? If so, feel free to ask! We've only covered the tip of the cat here – since their paws are just the tips of their legs, after all – but I love talking and answering questions as much as I can. Let me know if you have questions or if I didn't explain something well enough, and I'll get right back to 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 50K followers (@furrytoebeans) and counting :-). Read more

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