Extensions of his powerful legs and vital to mobility, your cat's four paws are the foundation of his body, enduring significant wear and tear every day standing, walking, running, jumping, and touching—just like human feet and hands —but with more acrobatics.
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A cat's paw pads ensure soft landings, delight us with high fives, and are perfect for knocking around toy mice or anything not nailed down off tables and desks while the sharp, retractable claws that grow out of the bones of his sensitive toes provide extra traction, digging and scratching tools, self-defense, and facilitate hunting prey. Yes, your cat's versatile paws pretty much stay busy doing one thing or another the whole time he's awake.
You can imagine, then, how much bacteria, dirt, litter dust, grease, chemicals, foreign objects, and odor fuzzy, little cat feet can accumulate—just from several visits to the litter box alone. Add to that: mud puddles, grass, tiny stones, sticks, leaf matter, and other organic debris for cats who also enjoy outdoor time in the backyard or patio.
Although your cat, fastidious creature that he is, seems to be doing a fine job of washing his own paws with his saliva, many pet parents wonder if they should jump in and clean their cat's paws, too, and the answer is a resounding yes. More than just a good idea, routinely inspecting and caring for your beloved cat's hard-working paws and cleaning them thoroughly with a gentle wipe of a soft, damp cloth will help maintain paw health and overall physical and mental wellbeing; after all, a super-clean cat is a contented cat.
Anatomy of a cat's paw
Your cat is a living work of art, with many unique characteristics not shared by other pets. And one of the coolest things about cats are their feet. From their sweet, little jelly bean paw pads to razor-sharp claws that grow out of each toe bone, cats' paws serve many essential functions. Understanding how your cat's paws are constructed and why they are so important to a cat's health, and even survival, is key to appreciating why you should care for and regularly clean them.
Cats have 18 toes—four toes and one dewclaw (or inner toe that doesn't touch the ground) on each front paw, and four toes on each back paw. Cats that have an extra toe on each of the front paws are called polydactyl, a genetic mutation, explains Ingrid King of Conscious Cats. Known as digitigrade walkers, cats walk on the tips and balls of their toes (digits) versus how we walk on our heels and balls of our feet.
Serving to house the claws when not in use, a cat's paw pads are thick and tough to protect their feet, and are composed of mostly fatty tissue that provides insulation to the feet and the soft padding that enables cats to silently stalk their prey. A cat's paw pads are also incredibly sensitive, allowing the cat to discern whether surfaces are hot or cold and other important signals vital to their survival.
In between each paw pad, lies a scent gland that secretes oil, which is deposited onto any surface your cat scratches, such as furniture, scratching posts, or trees—announcing her presence to other cats and marking her territory.
And interestingly, a cat's paw pads are the only part of the cat's body that contains sweat glands; albeit too small an area to control body temperature, but the pads can get sweaty if the cat is nervous.
Routine paw care
A thorough inspection is the first step in routine paw care. Regularly inspecting your cat's paws is the key to discovering wounds, scratches, scrapes, insect stings or bites, and splinters, that if not attended to, may become infected. If you find blood or pus on the paw pads or between the toes, or any bumps or lumps, it could alert you to severe infections, fungus, skin cancer, and other cat-paw diseases.
The next step to excellent cat-paw health is to clean your cat's paws, which removes dirt and odor that is embedded and absorbed into the paw area and between the toes during daily activities, especially on cats with furry feet such as medium- and long-hairs.
How to clean your cat's paws
Gently wipe your cat's paws with a clean, soft cloth dampened in lukewarm water, carefully cleaning around the pads, the complete surface of each of the pads, and in between each of the toes. When you're finished, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty for Animals suggests it's a good idea to moisturize the sensitive paw pads and don't let your cat's feet touch freezing patios, hot sidewalks, and other uncomfortable or potentially painful surfaces. Make sure you only use pet-safe products for every step of this process, as cats lick their paws frequently, and you don't want them to ingest anything that could hurt them.
You can acclimate your cat to having his feet cleaned by gently massaging each foot when you are cuddling and he's in a thoroughly relaxed state of mind. Many cats love a foot massage, and let you know by purring contentedly—it's at that point that cleaning his paws will be more readily accepted.
How to keep your cat's feet healthy
In addition to a gentle wipe to keep them clean, a cat's paw pads and feet can be maintained in a healthy condition by following a few simple tips:
- By using cat-friendly cleaners made with safe, natural ingredients like vinegar and baking soda, for instance, you can protect your cat's paws from harsh chemicals and from ingesting toxins while licking their paws.
- Trim your cat's nails regularly.
- Provide plenty of scratching posts.
Yes, you should clean your cat's paws! Although cats are meticulous groomers, you should clean their paws routinely for their health and wellbeing. Wipe their paws down gently with a soft, damp cloth, and moisturize with a pet-safe moisturizer afterward. Make sure to only use pet-safe products when you clean and moisturize your cats' paws, so that they do not ingest anything that isn't safe for them.
Cats greatly benefit from you cleaning their paws, which should be part of an overall paw-care program that includes a thorough inspection of the paws for sores, lumps, bumps, insect bites, and splinters to prevent infection, and alert you to clinical signs of a potential cat-paw disease that may require immediate veterinary care.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.