Cat paws are amazing and despite our curiosity to touch, cats are quick to shy away. This is because their paw pads are exceptionally sensitive and packed with receptors because they are vital to feline’s survival and hunting skills.
They also function as shock absorbers and to help regulate body temperature. Paw pads are soft and cushion-like, with one in the center of the paw and at the tips of each toe. They provide cushion when running and the ridges may provide traction. These are extremely useful characteristics when hunting as the cat may need to sprint suddenly to surprise its prey.
Furthermore, it is also known for cats who live in extreme climates like the snow leopard have fur-covered foot pads to insulate the bottom of their feet because the paw pads are so sensitive to temperature, pain, and pressure. The pads themselves are not insulated and can be severely injured by hot pavements, frozen sidewalks, and ragged surfaces.
Paws and forelegs are perfect little grooming tools, helping cats clean those hard to reach areas behind ears, under chins, on necks and faces. They accomplish this by first licking their paw several times and then wiping it on those areas that they can’t directly lick. Usually after a few paw swipes, they pause to lick and moisten their paws again and repeat the process. Kittens typically begin grooming with their front paws before they’re 4 weeks old.
Lastly, cat paws are incredibly flexible. The ability to bend and turn helps felines climb and hunt. One of the reasons cats are so adept at climbing up trees is because their front paws are designed to turn inward in order to sink claws into branches. This helps them maintain stability as well as pull them up and around branches. Although this is handy for climbing up trees, it doesn’t help with the descent. Cats back down trees because their front claws face in the wrong direction for a head-first downward climb. Additionally, front legs and paws are weaker than their more muscular back legs. This is why cats sometimes get stuck up in trees.
Normally a feline has 18 total digits, with a claw attached to each. On each forefoot are five digits, with the 5th toe being the dew claw, which can be described to be similar to a human’s thumb without the functionality. Located high on the foreleg, the dewclaw does not come in contact with the ground and therefore, is non-weight bearing. The only exception are cheetahs who can use their dew claw to snag and drag down prey. On each hind foot, there are four digits.
Any cat that has extra digits is a mutation that is referred to as a polydactyl. According to the Guinness World Records, the world record for the cat with most toes belongs to Jake, who has seven on each paw, counting to 28 in total.
Unlike humans, felines are digitigrades and walk on their toes. Walking and running on toes ups the odds of having a successful hunt by boosting speed and lengthening the strides. Cats are also quieter on their toes, making it harder for prey to detect them.
Interestingly enough, just like humans, cats can also have a dominant hand, or rather, paw. Although studies differ as to the percentages of cats who are right, left, or ambidextrous, they all agree that felines do have a paw preference, especially when they are performing challenging tasks. One study, conducted by Queens University in Ireland, correlates gender with paw dominance. Their data showed that male cats prefer to use their right paw, whereas females go with the left.
Paw pads come in colors that match the rest of the cat’s color scheme. Cats who sport grey fur usually have grey paw pads. Those who are orange have matching pink little ones. “Tuxedo” colored cats often come equipped with black spots on their paw pads. The pigments that make up the fur are the same that colors the skin.
Cats also sweat from the bottom of their paw pads. This cooling system helps keep felines from overheating on hot days. However, if frightened or stressed, the paw pads will also sweat.
Attached to the a cat’s paws are its claws, which are useful for grabbing and climbing to prey, climbing trees, and using them against other cats as a weapon. The claw can be described as a curved, “half-moon” shaped plate where the keratin, the same protein that make up our hair and nails, comes to a sharp point on the end.
It is commonly believed that feline claws are retractable. This is actually incorrect as the correct term is actually “protractile,” meaning that they are capable of being lengthened or protruded upon demand.
The claws are attached firmly to the last toe bone (the distal phalanx) which in turn is linked to the next bone by elastic ligaments. What allows the the claws to be retractable is the ligament that holds them inside a protective sheath of skin except when in use. To push the claws out, the muscles surrounding the toe bones contract, pulling on the tendons and rotating the distal phalanx forward. The ability to retract claws adds to their speed and prevents the claws from excessive wear and tear. In addition, because of the numerous nerve endings, a cat can know how far each claw has been extended and how much resistance it is experiencing.
Periodically the cat’s claw will stop growing, and then begin to grow again. As the outer sheath of the claw grows old and worn out, underneath, a new and extremely sharp claw is preparing to be exposed through the process of abscission: the intentional shedding of a body part. When a cat scratches, this behavior helps the outer layer to loosen from the cuticle in order to fall off and remain behind. This growth can be described similar to an onion and its layers.
Despite this, declawing is a painful procedure. Declawing involves the amputation of not only the claw, but this extends up to the first knuckle. There are two ways to declaw. It either involves removing the piece of the toe that has the nail attached to it, or, surgical alteration of the toes that paralyzes the nails ability to extend or use the nails at all. This latter method, also known as a tendonectomy, is not recommended by the AVMA (American Veterinary Medical Association), versus an onychectomy (surgical removal of the end of the toe) which is neither recommended nor disallowed.
In general, declawing will lead to some pain and discomfort after surgery and can permanently damage a way a cat will walk.
It has become an ethical and moral issue for pet owners and veterinarians alike. Some forbid the practice and will refuse to provide the procedure despite willing owners because of the consequences that cats face after the operation. Others believe that it is still a safe procedure, particularly compared to do-it-yourself operations done by a non-professional, or that it is the the only option left for the cat to stay in the home (though there are better and less invasive options such as trimming the claws). Another reason is for economics. Declawing cats is a quick surgery that is easy and lucrative, which can upwards of $1500.
References + For More Reading
Smithsonian’s Answer Book: Cats by John Seidensticker
Eyewitness Companion: Cat by Dr. Bruce Fogle
The Cat’s Mind: Understanding Your Cat’s Behavior by Dr. Bruce Fogle