How do cat paws work?

A cat’s paws are vital to keep the feline alive and kicking. They can help perform many functions from shock absorbing and self- defence to cleaning, killing and climbing

(Image source: Pixabay)

Unlike other creatures, such as humans who walk on the soles of their feet, cats are digitigrades and walk on their tiptoes. This makes them very agile, quick, and quiet too – hence the phrase ‘cat burglar’.

Both front paws have five digits (toes) while the rear two have just four. The back paws are stronger than the front and can better tolerate impacts when running and jumping. For every digit there is a digital pad, which cushions the foot. An additional large pad in the middle of each paw consists of three fleshy lobes to help absorb shocks and support the main leg bone. This is called the metatarsal pad on the hind paws and the metacarpal pad on the fore paws.

As well as the pads, each digit also features a sharp claw. Like human fingernails, the claws grow constantly and are made of keratin protein encased in hard, dead keratin cells. The front claws are usually sharper than the rear ones and to keep them sharp, when not in use the claws are protected by the skin and fur around the paw.

Meanwhile, to prevent them growing too long and potentially resulting in painful ingrown claws, cats can keep their claws short by using them for climbing, fighting and self-defence. They can also be trimmed by a vet and the use of a scratching pole will help file them down a bit too.

Top 5 facts

1. Monstrous manicures

Onychectomy is the cruel practice of declawing a cat. Another surgical procedure is a tendonectomy, which cuts the tendon that enables a cat to extend its claws.

2. Polydactyl cats

Cats usually have five digits on each front paw and four on the back. However, it’s fairly common for some species to develop a mutation that leaves them with up to seven toes.

3. Which paw are you?

Cats have a preferred paw. Of 100 cats tested, 60 per cent had a dominant paw – around 40 were left-pawed and 20 were right-pawed – while 40 per cent were ambidextrous.

4. Hot footing

Cats are covered in fur so they have to sweat through the skin on their paws. Scent glands beneath the front paws also let the cat leave behind its individual scent.

5. Cat on a hot tin roof

Cat paws are very sensitive, they use them to sense not only vibrations and movement but also temperature. Cats are known to put a paw out to test a surface they are unsure of.

This article was originally published in How It Works issue 14

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