Ask Dr. Richards: 07/05

Why are cats paws so sensitive? If ever I touch my cats paws – even by accident – she jumps, swats at me and hisses. Is this normal? Is there anything I can do to ease her tension?

Its quite normal for a cat to have some sensitive area on its body, an area where it resists being touched. Of course youll want to make sure theres no physical problem with your cats paws. But if theyre not swollen, red, oozing or malodorous and otherwise look OK – and if she doesnt excessively lick them or limp – then theyre probably healthy. (A quick check with your veterinarian wouldnt be a bad idea, though.)

This apparent hypersensitivity varies dramatically from cat to cat and from body part to body part. Dr. Mew, my good friend and feline roommate here at the Cornell Feline Health Center, is a very tolerant kitty. He doesnt mind when I touch his feet, the base of his tail, his tummy or anywhere else. But the other extreme is exemplified by my mothers cat, Elizabeth. If I simply brush against one of her rear paws, she jerks it back, indignantly glares at me, and then stomps away. Thankfully, shes spared me the swats and hisses, at least so far, and its really not an issue except when she needs a claw trim.  The tummy is off-limits for some other cats: A quick touch invites a five-pronged attack with four feet and biting mouths. 

Theres no evidence that the intolerance some cats have to being touched on certain parts of their bodies is due to pain. It seems to be just another of the many normal feline idiosyncracies that defy explanation.


When my mother passed away last August, she left me with a Siamese-type cat that joined my household with two other cats. No bigger than a mouse when we found him on the doorstep, he has grown to full size, and he loves me, since my mother is no longer there to pamper him. The problem now is, all of a sudden, he gives off a terrible musk odor that smells up the entire house. Is this normal for the breed, and if so, can anything be done to stop the horrible odor?

Healthy cats regardless of breed are virtually odor-free, so something is amiss. Im sure hes been neutered (you have had him neutered, right?), so the very strong, pungent, tenacious smell of male cat urine cant be the cause. From where else might odors emanate?

The mouth. Severe gingivitis, periodontal disease, and other oral diseases will cause bad breath and can make the entire kitty malodorous. (Recall that cat fur is covered with dried spit because of the way felines groom themselves.) Check his mouth and gums as thoroughly as possible.

The ears. Infection in the ears can create a rancid butter-type odor. Check to see that the insides of his ear flaps are clean and free of debris; if such is not the case, then ear disease may be present.

The skin. Severe skin disease can create a bit of a stink, though not as bad as similar conditions in dogs. Closely examine all body surfaces to make sure the skin is healthy.

The feet. Not stinky like some peoples feet, but a result of disease. Look especially for deep-seated infections in the skin around the toes and claws.

The anal sacs. These two structures are about the size of peas and are located under the skin near the anus. They create a smelly liquid with no clear purpose that is expelled through tiny openings located at about four oclock and eight oclock on the anal skin. The anal sac liquid is usually expressed from the sacs during defecation, but it may squirt out when a cat is frightened. This stuff really stinks, but rarely does one smell it on a normal cat. Nonetheless, check the area to make sure it looks OK.

Regardless of what you do or dont find, make sure to have your cat examined by your veterinarian. Your suffering from the odor is bad enough, but even worse, it may signal a physical problem that is jeopardizing your cats health.