The paw-pads are the parts of the foot that a cat walks on. Their function is primarily structural and sensory, collecting information on temperature, texture, shape, and size of objects. A cat will often reach out and gently pat a surface, testing it before walking on it. The pads help to stabilize a cat and maintain posture and act as an alert system by sensing movement and vibrations.
The paw-pad is like our heel or the balls of our feet; the subcutaneous tissue underneath the pad is made of fat tissue, says Richard Brown, DVM, of Just for Cats Veterinary Clinic in Stuart, Florida. Theres a pad associated with each toe, so there are four, sometimes more with polydactyl cats. Behind these pads is the larger round pad called the central pad, he explains. Up on the back of the leg is a little nub called the accessory pad. Its purpose is unclear.
The footpad is the only area of a cats body that has sweat glands producing watery sweat (as do humans). Although the sweat glands are not as critical for heat exchange as respiration, an over-heated (or frightened) cat may leave sweaty paw prints. We put baby socks on cats coming out of anesthesia to raise body temperature, says Brown, who is board certified in feline practice by the American Board of Veterinary Practitioners.
Although footpad problems are not an everyday health concern, Brown says the most common footpad problems he sees in his practice are the result of allergies, either to something inhaled, contacted, or eaten. Around the central pad youll see redness and swelling and a brownish discharge. There is a foul odor due to secondary bacterial infection. There may be crusty areas, and the paw will be sensitive. Treatment could include injectable or oral corticosteroids and possibly topical or oral antibiotics. Food testing or elimination diets may also be considered.
The second most common problem he sees is a callous-type growth in front of a digital pad called a cutaneous horn. It looks like another nail, says Brown. Theres no known cause for these at this time. Many are asymptomatic. Treatment is a simple excision under light sedative; no sutures are required.
Third on my list, especially in older cats, is toenails that become dysplastic – growing long and deformed, curling under. Ive seen lame cats and found a toenail thats grown into the pad. I saw one that grew in, out, back in and out again, says Brown. Ive even seen them come out the top of the foot. A deformed nail may result from injury to the nail bed; treatment is simple: clipping and application of antibiotic cream. Its important to teach the guardian to clip the nails regularly, or the problem will recur.
Further down on the list of footpad problems are injuries: lacerations, cat bites, puncture wounds; contact with irritants (hot asphalt, phenol products, e.g. Lysol); and bacterial infections secondary to trauma and immune system disorders called plasma cell pododermatitis and eosinophilic granuloma complex. In the latter two, there is swelling and maybe redness. Definitive diagnosis is by biopsy, and aggressive treatment is required, Brown says.
Occasionally, paw-pads are affected by three conditions: an autoimmune dermatosis called pemphigus foliaceus; a bacterial infection associated with feline leukemia virus or feline immunodeficiency virus infection; and calicivirus infection. During a recent calicivirus outbreak in southern California, some of the cats did have edema of the paw-pads, according to Janet Foley, DVM, assistant adjunct professor at University of California-Davis. Footpad problems from feline leprosy, fungal infections, tumors, and vitiligo can occur, but are rare.
Do paw-pad problems vary depending on where the cat lives or whether he is an indoor or outdoor kitty? Outdoor cats have more exposure to lacerations and bites, but overall paw-pad problems seem to be uncommon in cats across the US. In general, I dont see many problems involving feline feet, says Arnold Plotnick, DVM, board certified in feline medicine, practicing in New York City. Andy Carlton, DVM of Tucson, echoes that remark. I see very few purely paw-pad problems in cats.
Thomas P. Lewis, II, DVM, who is board certified by the American College of Veterinary Dermatologists, says, Cats dont get a lot of skin disease in the first place, and for it to be footpads is actually quite rare.