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Curious Kids: Why don’t cats wear shoes?

Did Puss in Boots have it all wrong? Flickr/zaimoku_woodpile, CC BY-NC

Curious Kids: Why don’t cats wear shoes?

This is an article from Curious Kids, a new series for children. The Conversation is asking kids to send in questions they’d like an expert to answer. All questions are welcome – serious, weird or wacky!


Why don’t cats wear shoes? – Molly, 3, Melbourne.

Cats don’t need shoes because since the dawn of time they have evolved to walk, run and jump on their hands and feet. Their hands and feet have evolved for the life of a carnivore (a meat-eater). They are well-designed killing machines, which is why we should try to keep pet cats inside.

Cats evolved in hot desert regions, where there were lots of small animals they could eat – mainly rodents like mice and rats. Hunters such as cats need to travel very fast, for short distances, to pounce on their prey, and to be able to climb so they can catch things that climb trees.

So they evolved to have retractable claws. That means cats can push them out and pull them in, just like Wolverine.

This slow-motion video shows how cats extend and retract their claws.

When they are resting, cats have their claws pulled in. These retractable claws help them grab and hold prey. They also help with climbing. They have a “thumb” on their front paws, which they use to scratch enemies in a fight, and to grip their prey so that cannot escape.

All members of the cat family – from little house cats to big panthers – have retractable claws.

Cats do not have “thumbs” on their hindlimbs (the back legs). The claws on a cat’s back legs are used mainly in climbing, and are not honed as much as those on the front legs.

This is our cat Obi’s paw from underneath. In this picture, we have made the claws pop out by gently pulling Obi’s paw. Claws are made of layers of keratin and sharpened to a knife’s edge. Author provided

Cats’ needle-sharp claws grow out of bones in their paws, just like our nails grow out of our finger bones. And cats use wooden objects in nature to sharpen their claws on their front paws. It’s instinctive – that means they can’t help wanting to do it.

Obi’s paw from underneath. The dark, black ‘stopper pad’ is in the middle and there are smaller ‘digital pads’ up on his ‘toes’. These are the shock absorbers, and the skin there is thicker and tougher than the rest of the cat’s skin. The cat is relaxed and so the claws are retracted (pulled in). Author provided

Some people like to ask their vet to remove the claws, but fortunately this cruel practice is banned in most places (including Australia). That’s because it hurts cats, messes with their fine balance, and affects their behaviour.

Another thing people sometimes do is use plastic protective caps to cover the claws. These are applied using superglue, to “save the furniture”. But an indoor “cat tree”, like a scratching post, works even better, and is less inconvenient for the cat.

The pads on their paws are shock absorbers, which helps explain why cats are so good at landing when they jump from a great height.

Parts of a cat’s paws are padded, and act as shock absorbers when they jump from great heights.

Some parts of the pads on the cat’s paws get their toughness through thickness and that protects them from rough surfaces. They also have special cushioning to protect against deformation.

Big cats like tigers also have well-designed paws that help them hunt, climb and jump. Flickr/Tambako The Jaguar, CC BY-ND

If cats wore shoes, none of this – the climbing, grasping, catching and all the other things cats evolved to do to survive – would be possible. It would be like Wolverine wearing boxing gloves. It just wouldn’t work.

On the other hand, because they do not wear gloves and boots, cats can get infections from germs that live in the soil. This doesn’t happen often.

Of the animals we are most familiar with, only people and horses often wear shoes. Some people think it is silly for humans to be wearing shoes. It’s just an un-natural adaption to recent things like living in cities and walking on concrete.

So perhaps the answer to Molly’s question is: “Why do humans wear shoes?”


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