As you know, cats usually have 5 toes on their
front paws and 4 on their back paws. Having 5
toes is actually the normal number for most
animals with backbones and 4 legs. There are
exceptions, of course. Way back when the first
4-legged animals were evolving, 5 toes seemed to
become the normal number. It happened about the
same time as the complicated wrist bones evolved.
Most of the species that evolved from those early
4-legged critters have 5 toes. 5 toes are not
necessarily better for most species, that’s just
what we have because our ancestors had them.
Primates like us use our thumbs a lot, but it may
not be too important for other animals.
The more interesting question might be why
they have only 4 in back, when 5 is so much more
common. When I think of a question like this,
I look for patterns. Which species have lost
Well, horses have lost all but their middle digit.
Their hoof is basically a fingernail that is very
big and thick. If we look at fossils of their
ancestors, we can see that the earliest ones had 5
toes. They walked and ran on their fingers and
toes like cats, not on the bottoms of their feet
like bears and humans. Later horse ancestors ones
had fewer toes. In modern horses, there are the
remains of 2 side toes that help to form a joint,
but only one full toe left. They run only on the
tip of one toe instead of on their toes like dogs
see picture here "The evolution of the Horse"
Why would they lose the side toes? Well, a
single hoof makes their foot lighter, which is an
important thing for an animal that specializes in
speed. They lost the ability to grab things or
turn their hands and feet to the side.
So, maybe cats with only 4 back toes are
able to run faster than cats with a full set of
toes. Having 5 front toes can still be helpful for
grabbing prey, climbing trees, or slashing.
That 5th toe is where a thumb would be if they
were primates. It’s called a dew claw. On
some cats it’s actually big, like a thumb. On
others, it’s smaller and higher up.
Some cats have extra toes. This is caused by a
dominant gene, meaning that they can have
extra toes even if they only get that gene from
one parent. It’s also a kind of gene that can have
a stronger or weaker effect in different
individuals. So, some cats with the gene may have
a tiny extra claw, while others can have a couple
of extra full-sized toes on each paw. Some even
have different numbers of toes on different front
paws or back paws. We recently fostered a
litter of kittens that had all different numbers
of toes. Some had the usual number. Others had an
extra toe. Others looked like they had catcher’s
mitts for paws.
Why do you think bears and raccoons walk on
flat feet when foxes and bobcats are up on their
If you are interested in questions like this,
you may want to study anatomy, evolution, or
Thanks for asking,
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