The Truth About Cat Fingers. What Are Those Strange Toes Called?


When you look at a cat’s paws, they have cute little “fingers” that look like tiny human hands. But are they really fingers or are they toes? The debate around what to call a cat’s digits on their front paws is an interesting one. On one hand, they certainly resemble fingers more than toes. On the other hand, anatomically speaking, they are more similar to our toes. In this article, we’ll take a deeper look at the anatomy and function of cat paws, including exploring why their “fingers” create so much confusion and debate. Whether you call them fingers or toes, a cat’s paws are impressive anatomical structures that allow cats to hunt, play, and go about their daily lives. By learning more about how cat paws work, we gain appreciation for the remarkable athleticism and agility of our feline friends.

Anatomy of Cat Paws

Cats have a complex anatomy in their paws that allows them to walk, hunt, climb, scratch, and groom themselves. Cats are digitigrade walkers, meaning they walk on their toes rather than the entire foot. Cat paws contain 5 digits on the front paws and 4 digits on the rear paws (1).

The front paws contain the following digits, starting with the innermost (2):

  • The dewclaw (equivalent to the human thumb)
  • First toe
  • Second toe
  • Third toe
  • Fourth toe

The rear paws contain all the same digits except for the dewclaw. Each digit contains bones called phalanges that are equivalent to fingers and toes in humans. Cats have a total of approximately 18 phalanges across all their paws (1).

Other key anatomical structures in cat paws include (2):

  • Paw pads – tough, cushioned skin on the bottom of the feet
  • Carpal pads – larger pad behind the toes
  • Metacarpal pads – pad at the top of the front feet
  • Metatarsal pads – pad at the top of the hind feet
  • Tendons – connective tissue attaching muscles to bones
  • Ligaments – connective tissue binding bones together

All these structures work together to give cats great dexterity, balance, shock absorption, and silent stalking ability.



Fingers vs Toes

There is some debate over whether to call cat digits “fingers” or “toes.” Cats technically have toes since their digits are part of their paws. However, some people refer to them as fingers because they function much like human fingers for grasping objects. Cats have five toes on their front paws and four toes on their back paws. The front paws are more dexterous and used for manipulating objects, climbing, scratching, and hunting. This had led to the front digits being nicknamed “fingers” by some cat owners.

Veterinarians and scientists typically refer to all cat digits as “toes” since that is the anatomically correct term. Calling them fingers is considered an informal nickname in casual settings. The debate arises since cats don’t use their paws exactly the same way as other four-legged mammals. Their front paws are adapted for more fine motor skills like humans’ hands. Ultimately both fingers and toes are acceptable terms in casual contexts, but toes is more technically accurate based on anatomy.

Digit Names

Cats have five digits on each of their front paws and four digits on each of their back paws. The digits are commonly referred to by the following names:

  • Front paw digits:
    • Thumb – The innermost digit
    • Index finger – Next to the thumb
    • Middle finger – Central digit
    • Ring finger – Next to the pinky
    • Pinky – Outermost digit
  • Back paw digits:
    • Innermost digit
    • Second digit
    • Third digit
    • Outermost digit

Some people may also refer to the cat’s digits as “toes” rather than “fingers.” However, anatomically they are more similar to fingers than human toes.

Polydactyl cats, which have extra digits on their paws, may have their own unique digit names like “Thumbelina” for an extra thumb or “Pinky” for an additional outer digit.

How Cats Use Their Digits

Cats have five digits on each front paw and four digits on each hind paw that serve important functions (Catster). The front paws are used for grasping, hunting, climbing, scratching, grooming, kneading, and more. Each digit plays a specific role:

  • The dewclaw is the innermost digit that doesn’t touch the ground. It provides grip and balance for climbing and grasping prey.
  • The thumb has a wide pad for stability and helps cats grasp and hold objects.
  • The middle three digits are spaced apart to allow for maximum flexibility. They help cats walk, jump, balance, climb, scratch, and knead.

The hind paws have four digits that are more closely spaced and aligned. They provide propulsion, grip, and maneuverability. Cats rely on their hind paws for running, jumping, climbing, scratching, and stabilizing prey (Erie News).

Together, a cat’s digits allow it to hunt, groom, play, escape danger, and go about all its activities with agility and finesse.

Declawing Controversy

Declawing cats is a controversial topic that has sparked heated debate. Declawing involves amputating the end bones of a cat’s digits to remove their claws. While some people argue declawing prevents furniture damage and eliminates the risk of scratches, others view the procedure as inhumane and unethical. Some key points in the declawing debate include:

– Pain and complications: Removing a cat’s claws requires amputating the end bones of their toes which can be painful during recovery. Improperly removed claws may also regrow abnormally causing long-term pain. Critics argue declawing can lead to chronic pain, infection, tissue necrosis, back pain from altered gait, and behavior problems.

– Inhumanity: Many view declawing as an act of cruelty, comparable to cutting off human fingertips at the first knuckle. It permanently removes a cat’s primary defense mechanism and changes how they naturally walk. Several countries have banned declawing as an inhumane practice.

– Alternatives exist: Trim claws regularly, use plastic caps, train cats to use scratching posts, or try deterrent sprays instead of declawing. These humane alternatives allow cats to keep their claws.

– Medical necessity: Some argue declawing may be justified in rare cases for medical reasons like chronic infections that are unresponsive to other treatment. However, declawing should never be done solely for human convenience or aesthetics.

Overall the declawing debate centers around animal welfare, ethics, and whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks of this permanent and painful amputation procedure. Many vets now discourage routine declawing given the availability of humane alternatives. (Sources:,

Digit Grooming

Proper paw grooming is an important part of caring for your cat. Here are some tips for keeping your cat’s paws clean and claws trimmed:

Regularly wipe your cat’s paws with a warm washcloth or paw wipes to remove any dirt, debris, or litter stuck between the toes. Pay special attention to the areas between the pads. This helps keep your cat’s paws clean and reduce the spread of bacteria.

Trim your cat’s claws every 2-3 weeks to keep them neat and prevent problems. Only trim the sharp tip, taking care not to hit the quick which will cause bleeding and pain. Introduce nail trims slowly with treats to help your cat accept it.

Apply a small amount of paw balm or moisturizer to your cat’s paws occasionally if they seem dry or cracked. Ensure any products used are pet-safe.

Check your cat’s paws regularly for any signs of injury, swelling, or redness which could indicate an issue. Seek veterinary advice if you have any concerns.

While some advise trimming the fur on the paws, this is generally not recommended. The fur protects the paw pads and helps grip. Only trim if matted or excessively long.

With regular gentle handling and positive care, grooming your cat’s paws can be an enjoyable bonding experience for both of you.

For more tips, see this helpful guide: Should You Trim the Hair On A Cat’s Paws?

Common Paw Conditions

Cats can develop a variety of medical conditions affecting their paws. Some common paw issues include:

Injuries – Cuts, scrapes, puncture wounds, burns, and other injuries to the paw pads or skin often occur from accidents, fights with other animals, or sharp/hot surfaces. These may cause limping, swelling, bleeding, or infection if not properly treated.

Infections – Bacterial or fungal infections like pododermatitis can cause inflammation, itching, oozing wounds, and skin thickening on paw pads, especially between the toes. This is sometimes called “pillow foot.” Antibiotics, antifungals, and topical medications may be prescribed.

Tumors – Benign fatty tumors called subungal perianal adenomas sometimes develop under claw beds. They may displace the claws. These are usually surgically removed. Tumors like squamous cell carcinoma may also rarely affect toe pads and can be malignant.

Arthritis – Degenerative joint disease causing swollen, painful joints may make it difficult for cats to walk on their paws. Medications, joint supplements, warmth, and rest can help manage arthritis discomfort.

Allergies – Environmental or food allergies can prompt excessive paw licking, chewing, and scratching. This may lead to wounds, infection, and hair loss on paws. Identifying and avoiding allergens is key.

If you notice any unusual issues with your cat’s paws, have your veterinarian examine them as soon as possible for proper diagnosis and treatment.

Evolution of Cat Feet

Cat feet have evolved over millions of years to make cats effective hunters. According to research from UC Riverside, there are five distinct types of feet in the cat family that have adapted for different habitats and hunting styles.

The first key adaptation was for cats to evolve to walk on their toes, known as digitigrade locomotion. Walking on the toes makes cats’ footsteps light and quiet, enabling them to stealthily stalk prey. The toe pads cushion cats’ steps, further muffling noise. The toe pads are also layered to provide traction for running, climbing, and pouncing.

Another adaptation is that cats only walk on four toes, with the fifth digit located higher up the leg. Having four load-bearing toes gives cats firm footing while retaining flexibility for agility. Cats also have protractile claws that can extend out like hooks for climbing and grasping prey. Their claws are retractable, enabling silent stalking. The shape of cats’ paws distributes weight to allow for better balance.

According to researchers, as cats radiated into different environments, their feet continued adapting to refine hunting skills. From tree-climbing cats with flexible feet to desert-dwelling cats with fat toe pads for walking on hot sand, evolution shaped the perfect cat paw design for each species’ niche.



Cat paws and digits are unique evolutionary adaptations that enable felines to hunt, climb, scratch, balance, and groom effectively. While colloquially referred to as “fingers”, technically cats have toes on their front and back paws. The specific names for a cat’s digits are: thumb, index toe, middle toe, ring toe, and pinky toe. Cats rely on these specialized toes and the soft toe pads on the bottom of their paws to silently stalk prey, grip surfaces for climbing, and maintain balance. Declawing cats is an unnecessary and inhumane practice that should be avoided, but gently trimming nails and cleaning between the toes is important for health. With proper care, most common paw issues like injuries, infections, and arthritis can be effectively managed. While the cat family has evolved some variations in paw structure and size, the basic anatomy has remained similar across species due to its specialized function. In summary, a cat’s toes are perfectly designed tools for survival and should be respected as an integral part of their identity as agile hunters.

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