Quick Guide: Identifying the Cause of Swollen Cat Paws

Author: K. Marie Altoby K Marie Alto Updated 10 min read

Quick Guide: Identifying the Cause of Swollen Cat Paws

Our rambunctious fur babies get into all sorts of trouble, and that trouble can sometimes have consequences.

Most of the time, those consequences end up being a bit of embarrassment, a few bad smells, or maybe a bruise, scrape, or allergic reaction. Sometimes, though, it can be a little more pronounced and a little scarier.

One of the scarier symptoms you can come across with a feline friend is swollen paws. It's not the kind of symptom you see very often, so it can be very concerning when you see it, especially if you also see your furry child limping around or avoiding moving just to avoid stepping on the foot that is all swollen up.

It's even worse if more than one is swollen. It tugs at the heartstrings, and of course, it makes you concerned whether or not it's a serious problem worthy of a trip to the emergency vet.

So, let's talk about it. Before you get yourself worked up into a panic, let's go over the various possible causes of swollen cat paws, how serious they may be, and how to handle them.

Is a Swollen Cat Paw Cause for Concern?

While it's always concerning to see your pet pal in some kind of distress, is a swollen paw something worth a trip to the vet for, or is it less severe?

A Cat Paw Image by Toe Beans

Thankfully, it's almost always the latter. There are a bunch of different possible causes for a swollen paw, but most of them aren't so serious as to need emergency attention.

It's only in a few cases where emergency attention is necessary, and I'll make sure to note that when I discuss it later.

A cat looking up at an organic catnip toy by Momma Knows Best Organics

You should, however, certainly call your vet at the first opportunity. They can examine your furry child to make sure nothing else is wrong, like a fractured or broken toe, an infection, or something that needs cleaning or stitches.

From there, of course, follow their advice, and if they want to see your fur baby right away, do so.

What Are the Symptoms of a Swollen Cat Paw?

While the obvious symptom is, well, obvious – the paw is swollen – you might not notice it right away. In fact, whatever that silly feline got into to cause the problem can have a delayed reaction, and you might not notice swelling right away because it hasn't swollen up yet.

Think of it like this. You twist your ankle. It’s not horrible, just a little painful, and you think I’ll just walk it off instead of resting and icing. Over time you start to see swelling until you finally admit there might be a little more to your injury that you need to tend to.

A Cat Licking Their Paw Image by Toe Beans

So, what are some other symptoms you might notice?

  • Frequent biting or licking at a paw. Cats don't have a lot of tools at their disposal to deal with pain and illness, so they generally try to lick and nibble at whatever is bothering them as a way to soothe and prod at it. If there's something stuck in their paw like a thorn, they'll be trying to get it out, even if they don't really have a good way to do so.
  • Reduced mobility or limping. If you injure your foot, you don't want to put weight on it; if you injure a hand, you don't want to use it. The same goes for your fur baby. If they injure a foot, they don't want to put weight on it, so they'll limp around and avoid doing so. They may also just choose not to move much and will curl up in their comfort space and not leave it for much of anything.
  • Reduced appetite. This one is especially common in cases where your fur baby is in pain or where they have an infection. They just won't feel good, so they won't want to do much, including eating. This is a good indication that something is wrong enough that you should bring them to the vet.

There are also two signs of infection that you should watch out for. If you see either or both of them, make sure you bring your fur baby to the vet ASAP; antibiotics may be critical to preventing further pain, damage, and danger.

  • Abnormally hot paws. Cats naturally run a little hotter than we do – their body temperatures are around 101 to 102.5 degrees – but their paws, being extremities, will be a little cooler. If their paws are hot to the touch, it can be a sign of inflammation, which is most often a sign of an infection that needs addressing.
  • Foul discharge from the paw. This is a sure sign of an infection. When pus or another awful ooze is coming from the paw, it's probably because of some kind of injury that got infected. This can be anything from something in the nail bed to something in one of those adorable toe beans to a cut that just didn't heal. Either way, it's vet time.

Now, what actually causes these problems? Let's dig in.

The Causes of Swollen Cat Paws

There are a bunch of possible causes of swelling in a paw. That's because swelling is a natural reaction to pretty much any kind of injury or invasion of the body and is part of the natural healing process. A tiny bit of swelling is fairly normal, even, but it's still worth addressing because we, as pet parents, can help.

Cause #1: Insect Bites or Stings

The first and one of the most common causes of a swollen paw is an insect bite or sting. Cats have a fierce internal hunting instinct, and they love to pounce on, play with, and swat at bugs around them. Sometimes, it's a fly, aka a delicious sky raisin. Other times, it's something that ends up tasting or smelling awful and driving away your kitty. Aside from the yuck factor, there is usually no harm done.

The issue is those cases where the bug can fight back, and bites or stings. Bees, wasps, hornets, some spiders, particularly vicious ants.

Insect bites and stings usually have some kind of venom that further drives the point home. It'll sting, of course, and that pain is meant to drive off whatever predator was trying to eat them. That venom will cause localized swelling that can last for anywhere from a few minutes to a few hours.

An Insect Biting a Cat Paw Image by Toe Beans

Two things can make this worse. The first is when the stinger breaks off or sticks in the paw. Honeybees are notorious for doing this, which is why they don't sting very often; it's deadly to them, so it's a last resort. Wasps and other stinging insects can sting more than once and don't lose their stingers, so they are less hesitant to sting when in defense mode.

The second issue is when your fur baby is allergic to the venom. Their paw, or even their whole leg, can swell up, and in serious cases it can even cause trouble breathing. If you suspect your kitty is having trouble breathing, head straight to the emergency vet.

I wrote more about allergies in cats over here, so be sure to check it out!

Cause #2: Foreign Bodies

The term "foreign body" refers to anything not naturally part of the cat invading the body of the cat.

If you allow your fur baby outside, whether supervised or not, there are lots of little pokey items waiting to be picked up. So, what happens if they step on a nettle, a thornbush, one of those bee stingers that sticks in the foot, the barbed tip of a fishhook, a bit of wood, or another small, sharp bit of debris? Well, that bit of sharp substance can end up stuck in their paw. Maybe it's between toes, or around nails, or lodged in a toe bean. Whatever the case, it's stuck there, and like a tenacious splinter, it's not always going to be easy to get out.

A Cat With an Injured Paw Image by Toe Beans

Luckily, these are rarely dangerous, just irritating. You can handle this in a bunch of ways, including just removing the object with tweezers if you can get a grip on it.

"If you are certain that the swollen paw was due to a minor problem such as a thorn you have removed, soak the paw in a mixture of one-gallon fresh cool water with two tablespoons of two percent chlorhexidine added. Chlorhexidine is an antiseptic that is available at many drugstores. However, it's always wise to check with their vet even if the problem seems to be minor since the chance of infection is always present, and the foreign object can move deeper into the paw as time passes, making it more difficult to retrieve." – Love To Know Pets.

Your kitty can still be susceptible to a foreign body if they are indoor only. Pokey items such as pine needles can be tracked inside. Décor items can have pieces that break off, and let’s not even talk about that mug that shattered into a million pieces that you thought you cleaned up (yeah this might have just happened in my house, though no toe beans have been injured (knock on wood)).

Any minor injury with a foreign body requires you to clean the wound and make sure it doesn't get infected, so keep an eye on it until things look like they're healing.

Cause #3: Injuries

The third possible cause is any of the many possible injuries that can happen to a paw. Cats can only really interact with the world in a few ways, the main one of which being their paws, so of course, those paws are at risk of being injured when the world doesn't want to be messed with.

Cuts, bruises, scrapes, burns, anything that injures the paw can cause swelling. As long as there's nothing lodged in the paw – and you should check – these issues will generally heal in a few days.

A Vet Treating an Injured Cat Paw Image by Toe Beans

That said, more serious problems can require immediate vet attention. Examples might include:

  • Serious burns. If you had a hot stove and your fur baby stepped on it, medical intervention will likely be needed for pain and to prevent infection.
  • Serious cuts. In cases where a cut is bad enough that it requires stitches, exposes tendons or bones, or otherwise won't just heal up in a few days on its own.
  • Injuries that may be more than skin-deep. If a nail was pulled out, a toe may be fractured or broken.

This is also where heat can be a sign of an infection and means you should bring them to the vet ASAP.

Cause #4: Nail Problems

While we often think of cats being able to deal with their claws naturally by scratching, it's actually a good idea to keep their nails trimmed.

Just like human nails, claws can continue to grow if not maintained. Nails that grow too long can lead to problems and I’m not just talking about your furniture. Claws, and long ones in particular can get caught on things and tear, bend, twist, or otherwise injure the toe they're attached to. They can also get caught and ripped out in extreme cases.

A Cat With Nail Problems Image by Toe Beans

Another extreme case is when the nail keeps growing unchecked for too long; it keeps its natural curl and curls more and more until it curls back into the foot itself and can puncture the toe bean. That can then be a huge irritant and even a source of infection. A young healthy cat doesn't usually let their nails get that long, but if they're sick or old or it hurts to scratch at things, overgrowth is possible.

The opposite of all of these is nails that are cut too short. You've heard of being "cut to the quick"? Well, the "quick" is the blood vessel in the center of a nail that keeps it healthy and allows it to grow. Cutting more than just the white tip will hit the blood vessel and nerves causing your kitty pain.

When your kitty goes scratching in the litterbox, this injury can allow germs to take of residence leading to a possible infection, which can cause swelling and will need attention.

Cause #5: Cancer

Nobody likes to hear the C-word, and thankfully, it's pretty unlikely to be the cause of foot swelling in a cat.

However, cancers can spread anywhere in the body, and that means places like the paw pads, nail beds, and toe joints. You might be surprised to learn a type of lung cancer called lung-digit syndrome can cause swelling in the paw.

If the swollen paw appears to be more of a lump rather than swelling, it doesn’t automatically mean it’s cancerous. There are several cause of lumps and bumps that can show up on your kitty.

Thankfully, almost all cases where your cat has a swollen paw are not going to be the big C; they're going to be fairly obvious, direct sources of injury that can be treated right away and handled by a vet or even just with some home treatments.

A Vet Treating a Cat Image by Toe Beans

Cause #6: Infection or Disease

Those adorable toe beans are unfortunately not immune to infections and diseases.

Pillow Foot

We reviewed some of the symptoms of infection above, heat, oozing, etc., but if your kitty’s paw pad has inflated like a balloon, they may be suffering from feline plasma cell pododermatitis (PCP), more commonly known as pillow foot.

This condition is not common and that’s likely why it’s also not well understood. It’s said to be the result of an immune response to inflammation or an infection.

Treatment may include prednisolone to help reduce inflammation and an immunosuppressant and/or antibiotic to help address an infection.

There is no cure for pillow foot so it’s important to be diligent in monitoring if your kitty has been treated in the past.

Calicivirus

There are several strains of the feline calicivirus (FCV) and some cause more severe issues than others. Mild infections typically present with upper respiratory symptoms, though severe cases can cause joint inflammation and swelling and the paw is not immune. It can also cause ulcerations on the paw.

FCV is highly contagious, but there is a vaccine. While it won’t prevent infection, it can minimize the severity of symptoms if your kitty gets infected.

Fungal and Bacterial Infections

These little invisible invaders can live peacefully on your skin but given the opportunity they can grow out of control and turn into an infection.

If your kitty is an anxious groomer or has allergies that cause them to nibble at their paws, the extra attention from that barbed tongue can lead to little cracks in the skin giving invaders an open door to thrive.

So, if you notice swelling around your cat’s nail beds and/or a foul smell it’s time for a vet visit.

Whatever caused your fur baby’s swollen paw, you may need toinvest in an e-collar to prevent them from nibbling at it while it heals.

Has your fur baby ever come to you with a swollen paw before? If so, what ended up causing it, and how did you handle the situation? I'd love to hear all your stories about your furry little friends, so be sure to leave those in the comments section down below!

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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