Humans have long attempted to emulate the smooth, effortless-looking walk of a cat. We use it in art, animation, and even attempt it ourselves. However, cats have a lot of physical adaptations that make their walk so unique. Walking like a cat is not as easy as it seems!

How a Cat’s Feet Are Used in Walking

The feet of a cat skeleton. Photo Credit: Kirill Tsukanov via Flickr

When a human walks, the entire bottom of each foot touches the ground (heel to toe). Walking in this flat-footed manner is called plantigrade locomotion. Other land mammals such as bears and orangutans are also plantigrade.

In contrast, a cat is considered to be digitigrade. Cats walk on their toes with their heels/wrists permanently raise (think old fashioned Barbie). The claws grow out of the last bone on each finger/toe. A cat’s claws do not typically touch the ground as the cat is walking because they are retractable. That last bone of the cat’s finger/toe can flip up and down to extend and retract the claw. The retractable nature of a cat’s claws keeps them long and sharp!

Different Ways That Cats Walk

Cats have individual control over each leg, so they can choose to walk in whatever way suits them best. However, there are 4 ways that cats walk most often (known as cat gaits).

Cat vs Human Skeletons

Cat skeleton vs Human skeleton. Both images are public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

  1. Walking
    A cat’s walk is pretty unique. Only one paw leaves the ground at a time, giving them a very smooth motion. Cats move both legs on one side of the body and then both legs on the other side. For example, right-rear, right-front, left-rear, left-front.
  2. Stalking
    This gait has the same basic movement as walking (one paw at a time, one side at a time), only lower to the ground and slower. Stalking is a signature cat move that keeps the body very still while creeping forward toward unsuspecting prey.
  3. Pacing
    Pacing is a faster version of walking. To speed things up, two paws leave the ground at the same time. Both paws move on one side of the body and then the paws on the other side of the body. This is the walk you see when your cat knows that it is meal time and comes quickly into the kitchen.
  4. Galloping
    Galloping is the fastest cat gait. Two paws leave the ground at a time, but they land at 3 separate times: front right, front left, both rear paws. Those powerful hind legs propel the cat forward almost like a leap.

A cat’s stealthy walking comes at a price. A study funded by the National Science Foundation in 2008 found that cat gaits are less energy efficient than the gaits of humans or dogs. It takes more energy to keep the body level and to use smooth motions. This could be an explanation for their short periods of activity and hunting followed by long periods of rest.

When Walking Doesn’t Look Right

Cinco preparing for yoga

Cinco showing off some leg.

Veterinarians can use a cat’s walk to determine if the cat has certain neurological or orthopedic illnesses. If a cat is circling, off-balance, falling over, or dragging a limb, there could be a serious medical problem. If you think that your cat is walking in an unusual way, contact your veterinarian for a clear diagnosis of the problem.

Ataxia is a diagnosis that means that the cat has an uncoordinated way of walking due to neurological problems. There are different forms of ataxia that correlate to the different parts of the nervous system that are affected. A common form of ataxia is Vestibular Disease. This form affects the vestibulocochlear nerve which sends information about balance to the brain from the ear. Cats suffering from Vestibular Disease can have difficulty standing up, fall over after walking a few steps, have their head tilted to the side, and their eyes may move around rapidly. For some cats, this lack of coordination comes on suddenly with no warning. In those cases, the disease may temporary and the cat will recover without medical intervention. Even in these cases of temporary Vestibular Disease, it is important to have the cat evaluated by a veterinarian.

What is your cat’s favorite gait (walking, stalking, pacing, or galloping)?

Sources & Digging Deeper

Gait Assessment In Cats – Dr. Laurent Garosi

Vestibular Syndrome – Cornell University College of Veterinary Medicine

Guide to Animal Tracking – Princeton University

Foot – Encyclopedia Britannica

Domestic Cat – Encylopedia Britannica