Caring for Your Cat's Feet

yellow and white kitten holding up paw

Cat Feet Structure

As we all know, normal cats have four feet, two in the front and two in the back. A cat's two front feet are commonly called paws.

On their front paws, normal cats have five toe pads and five claws each. A cat's back feet each have four toe pads and four claws. Cats also have one large paw pad on the bottom of each foot. Both the toe pads and the large pad on each foot may be pink or they may be pigmented.

Genetic Abnormalities

Some cats have an autosomal dominant genetic trait that causes them to have extra toes. This is called polydactyly. A cat with extra toes on its front paws is the most common form of polydactyly, but extra toes can also be on the back feet. I once had a cat with extra toes on both his front and back feet. In fact, he could almost use his front paws like hands when he was playing with his cat toys. Polydactyly in cats usually causes no problems.

Some long-haired cats have fur growing in between their toes. If it is long enough, the fur sometimes covers part of the foot and gets in the cat's way. If the fur growing between your cat's toes is very long you may want to trim it with scissors so that the fur doesn't get in the cat's way when walking or playing. To trim this fur it is best to use scissors with blunt ends because cats tend to move around a lot anytime you do anything to their paws.

Cats' Paw Pads

A cat's paw pads are made of rough, hairless skin that is much thicker than the skin on the other parts of its body. Despite their thickness, cats have lots of nerve endings in each pad and they can detect vibration, temperature, and other tactile information through them.

Cats also have sweat glands in their paw pads. Cats don't produce sweat on the rest of their bodies like humans do. The paw pads are the only places on a cat that sweats.

Cats' Claws

Cats claws are made of keratin, which is a protein. A cat's claws are covered by an outer layer called the sheath, which consists of dead keratin cells. Running through the center of each claw is the quick. The quick contains blood vessels, nerves, and new keratin cells responsible for nail growth. The quick is pink in color because it contains the blood supply.

A cats claws grow continuously. As a cat's nails grow, they shed the sheath by scratching on a rough surface. This is why it is important to provide your cat with a scratching post or some other area where your cat is allowed to scratch.

Cats can extend and retract their claws at will. Cats use their claws for climbing, catching prey, or defending themselves.

Common Foot Problems in Cats

Foot pad problems

Sometimes a cat's foot becomes injured. This can happen during a fight with another cat or other animal, and sometimes the cat simply steps on something sharp, such as a burr or glass. If possible, it is best to have your veterinarian remove the foreign object from your cat's foot rather than trying to do this yourself.

If you need to remove it yourself, you can use tweezers. Keep in mind that your cat will be in pain and may bite during the removal (which is why it is best to have your trained veterinarian do it). After the object has been removed, the wound can be cleaned with a cotton ball that has been soaked in hydrogen peroxide diluted with water.

Even if you are able to remove the foreign object you should take your cat to the vet to make sure its paw doesn't get infected. Any time that a cat's foot pad is damaged there is a risk of infection. Because cats are walking around on the injury all sorts of germs are able to enter, not to mention the bacteria on the object that caused the wound in the first place.

Symptoms of an infected paw pad, or an abscess in your cat's foot pad, include holding the paw up and refusing to walk on, or put any weight on it. Another symptom is swelling of the paw. Foot pad infections in cats can be quite severe, but can be treated with antibiotics obtained from your veterinarian.

The best way to prevent foot pad injuries in your cat is to keep him or her indoors.

Nail Problems in Cats

Torn Nails

Sometimes cats will get their claws stuck in something and when they jerk their claws loose they tear the nail. Symptoms of a torn nail are blood around the nail and also limping and refusing to put weight on the foot. Like injured paw pads, torn nails commonly get infected. Remember that your cat is scratching around in the litter box with its injured foot where all kinds of bacteria are present.

A cat with a torn nail needs to see a veterinarian. Typically, your veterinarian will prescribe topical antibiotics for a torn nail. If the torn nail is severely infected your vet may also prescribe an oral antibiotic. Usually, the nail will heal in a few weeks.

The best way to prevent a torn nail is to trim your cat's nails on a regular basis and also by providing your cat with an adequate scratching post so they routinely remove the outer nail sheath.

Nails Embedded in Paw Pad

Sometimes when a cat's nails become too long they curl under and embed themselves in your cat's foot pad. Like other foot pad injuries this can be quite painful to your cat. This problem most commonly occurs in older cats that no longer groom themselves very well or exercise very much. Often during grooming cats will removed the outer nail sheath with their teeth or an active cat will use the scratchpost to remove the sheath.

If the outer nail sheath doesn't get removed, it sometimes curls back toward the foot pad and gets embedded in it.

You can prevent this from happening by keeping your cat's nails trimmed. If your cat has gotten to the point where the nails are embedded in its paw then it is best to have your veterinarian trim your cat's nails because your cat will be in some pain.

If you are able to cut your cat's nails yourself just be careful not to cut down too far. If you cut into the quick, where the nerve endings and blood supply are located it will be quite painful for your cat and your cat will bleed profusely. For tips on trimming your cat's nails and a photo of where the quick is located please see Trimming Cats Claws.