The cat’s paws are made up of the soft paw pads which act as a cushion for the load-bearing front and hind limbs, the toes (or digits) and claws which are made of a hard protein called keratin with the quick located inside the claw, that is made up of nerves and blood vessels.
Cats are quadrupeds and digitigrade which means they have four feet and walk on their toes without the heel touching the ground. When walking, they directly register by placing the rear foot directly in the spot the forefoot was.
- Acting as a barrier between the cat and the ground,
- Scratch an itch or protect itself during a fight
- Climb vertical objects such as trees or fences
- Hold onto and grip prey
- The paws contain scent glands known as interdigital glands that enable the cat to mark his or her territory as they scratch
- Scent glands are only present in the paws
- Touching and exploring objects
Bones, ligaments and tendons
The cat’s feet contain five metacarpal bones on the front feet, and five toes, each toe is made up of three bones (phalanx) called distal, middle and proximal bones.
The claw is attached directly to the distal phalanx, ligaments in the front feet pull the distal phalanx towards the middle phalanx which keeps the claws off the ground and prevents excessive wear and tear. The extensor tendon helps the cat retract his or her claws. When relaxed, the claws are sheathed with the skin and fur around the toe pads, when tensed, the cat’s claws are extended.
The cat’s claws are made of layers of keratin which are continually being shed, the quick is found inside the claw which contains a rich supply of nerves and blood vessels. Claws have several important functions which include holding onto things, helping the cat climb and cling to surfaces, scratching an itch.
Declawing is thankfully losing favour, is illegal in most countries and has been banned in New York as well as eight cities in California. As we know, the claw attaches directly to the distal phalanx and both are removed during declawing surgery. The surgical removal of the claw and bone is extremely painful to the cat and has several potential side effects including infection, pain and re-growth of the claw. This also leaves the cat without his or her defence mechanisms. A scratching post solves the problem of cats scratching.
The paw pads (affectionately referred to as toe beans) are hairless skin that covers a fat pad and acts as a cushion. They consist of the digital pads beneath each toe (digit), the metacarpal (forelimb) or metatarsal (hindlimb) pad, which is the heart-shaped pad located in the centre of the foot, and the carpal pad on the wrist.
While cats are reasonably low-maintenance, with such an important job, it’s important to keep the cat’s paws in tiptop shape.
If the cat is indoors, it will be necessary to trim the claws every 4-6 weeks as they are not naturally worn down as they would be with outdoor cats. Claw trimming should start during kittenhood so that the cat accepts having his or her paws handled. Claw trims become even more important in the cat’s senior years as they can thicken with age, and embed in the paw pad.
A scratching post provides the cat with the opportunity to sharpen his or her claws and remove the loose outer layer of the claw. As a rule, the post should be 1.5 times taller than the cat.
If the cat goes outside, wipe the claws with a damp cloth when he or she comes inside to remove any debris. Carefully check the paw for grass awns or glass embedded into the footpad or toes.
Cats can potentially walk through toxins that can damage the skin or be ingested if the cat attempts to remove the substance during grooming. If the paws become contaminated with a toxic substance, wash thoroughly in hot, soapy water and contact your veterinarian for additional advice. Some substances are corrosive and can potentially burn the paws.
Regularly check the paws (including between the toes) for signs of trauma, swelling, cracks and dryness. A scent-free moisturiser can be applied to dry or cracked paws.
Just like any part of the body, the paws can be affected by disease or injury. Common signs can include lameness, reluctance to bear weight on the affected foot, swelling, pain, discharge and hair loss.
- Plasma-cell pododermatitis: A rare inflammatory disease that causes softness and painful swelling of the affected paw pads.
- Tumours: Any abnormal growth is classed as a tumour and may be primary or secondary. Several types of tumours can affect the skin or bones of the foot.
- Pemphigus: A rare group of autoimmune diseases in cats where the cat’s own immune system attacks the tissues due to an overproduction of autoantibodies affecting layers of the skin which cause red and inflamed pustules on the affected area.
- Frostbite: Damage or possible death to the skin and the underlying tissues due to freezing temperatures. Prolonged exposure to extreme cold causes the water in the tissues to freeze, which results in the rupture of surrounding cells.
- Burns (chemical or thermal): The paws can be damaged if they come into contact with chemicals or heat, such as a hotplate or a tar road on a hot day. Keep cats inside during extreme weather, supervise cats around stoves and clean up chemical spills.
- Abscess: A walled-off collection of pus that occurs when an injury, usually a bite from another cat, introduces bacteria to the area. An abscess is extremely painful to the cat and requires lancing and treatment with antibiotics.
- Ringworm: A fungal infection that can affect the skin and fur all over the body.
- Foreign body: A sharp or needle-like object which lodges in the skin or between the toes. Common foreign bodies include broken glass and grass awns. Left untreated, a foreign body can lead to an abscess or skin infection.
- Ingrown claws: Senior cats are at increased risk of ingrown claws which occur when the claw grows so 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.