Domestic Cat

 Felis catus (formerly Felis domesticus)

Domestic cat left
                  front track. Drawing  by Kim A. Cabrera. Domestic cat right
                  front track. Drawing  by Kim A. Cabrera.
Left front

(Size: 1 1/2 in. L X 1 3/8 in. W)

Right front

(Size: 1 1/2 in. L X 1 3/8 in. W)

Domestic cat left
                  hind track. Drawing  by Kim A. Cabrera. Domestic cat right
                  hind track. Drawing  by Kim A. Cabrera.
Left hind

(Size: 1 5/16 in. L X 1 3/8 in. W)

Right hind

(Size: 1 5/16 in. L X 1 3/8 in. W)

Domestic Cat Track

Natural History of Domestic Cats

Perfect tracks of a domestic cat (Bones).
                    Perfect tracks like this are rare. Photo by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2002.

A single sharp claw mark shows above the left outer toe in this perfect cat track. Perfect tracks are hard to find. You have to have almost perfect soil conditions. This was river silt, left behind after the high water had receded. The track looked the same one week later when I returned to plaster cast it. All the features that identify this as a cat track are clearly visible. For more about differentiating cat and dog tracks, see Canine vs. Feline.


Cat tracks show four toes on the front foot and four toes on the hind foot. Cats do not show their claws in their tracks because they are retractable. (More technically, this is called protractible. This means that the normal relaxed state of the toe muscles has the claws sheathed. When the muscles contract, the claws come out of the sheaths.) Cats, unlike dogs, keep their claws sharp by not walking on them. The two front toes in a cat track are not aligned right next to each other. The inner toe is set further out than the outer toe of the pair.

When we think of cats, we usually think of pets. However, there are many feral domestic cats running around. They can live singly or in colonies of cats.

Cats are usually nocturnal, or active at night. They will get up early in the morning and have a "play time." (My cats always do this when I'm trying to sleep.) Afternoon is nap time. Play can consist of pouncing on toys, on other cats, on leaves, or any other moving object. Some cat play is actually practice for hunting.

Female cats are good hunters. This is because they feed the young. Cats are ambush predators. They don't chase down their prey in long chases. They tend to lie in wait or stalk their prey and pounce on it. They eat small mammals, birds, and anything else they can catch. Prey is killed with a bite to the back of the neck. Female cats will bring live prey back to young to teach them how to catch it.

The feet of a cat show their hunting style. They have large, soft pads on the front and hind feet. These cushion each step and make their movements quieter. claws are carried sheathed so that they don't normally scrape on the ground as the cat moves. A cat walks in a way that sometimes leaves a hind track on top of a front print. This is a way of moving silently through the landscape. When a front foot is placed down and doesn't snap a twig or otherwise make noise, the cat can move the hind foot to that same spot and know that it will be taking a quiet step. Cats hunt by lying in wait and jumping on their prey. They do not chase down their prey like canids do, so their claws can remain retracted and kept sharp for catching  and holding prey. Canids need their claws out to gain traction when they chase prey.

Cats have sheathed claws (retractable). Keeping the claws sheathed until they need them helps keep them sharp. Dogs walk on their claws all the time and the claws get dull as the dog ages. However, a wild canine's hunting strategy is different. They chase down their prey over long distances. Cats rely on stealth and ambush in catching prey. Their claws must be sharp and ready when they need them.

Cats are territorial and have a variety of methods for marking their territory. They will spray urine on objects, scratch trees and posts, rub their faces on things, and leave scat, or droppings, as a marker to let other cats know whose territory they are in. Male cats do more spraying than females do, although females do sometimes spray. If a cat feels threatened by the presence of a new cat, it may go out and re-mark its territory. Scratching trees and upright objects is a way for a cat to display its size to other cats. The higher the scratches, the bigger the cat. When a cat rubs on something, scent glands on the side of the face leave behind odors for other cats to find. House cats do this a lot, even rubbing their faces on their owners to mark them. Cats will also butt heads in displays of affection for one another. Domestic cats bury their scat, but wild cats will sometimes leave it exposed as a way of claiming territory. Cat scat is in segments and is somewhat blunt on the ends.

Cats can breed any time of the year, and a single pair of cats can produce two or more litters a year. The mother cat will keep the kittens hidden until they are about five or six weeks old.

                    track. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2007.

A nice clear cat track in mud. Fine silty mud is great for showing detail.

                    track. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2007.

A pair of cat tracks overlapped. Hind track is on top of front in this photo. The fur on the bottoms of the feet is visible in this photo. This particular cat has lots of fur on the bottoms of his feet, even in summer.

                    track. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2007.

This looks like a cat with five toes, however it is actually an overlapping pair of tracks. The hind print is on top of the front and almost perfectly covers it. The fur on the bottoms of the feet is visible in this photo. This particular cat has lots of fur on the bottoms of his feet, even in summer.

                    burial by domestic cat. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2007.

This domestic cat buried his scat in a neat circular fashion before departing to the right. The ruler is six inches for scale.

Domestic cat scat. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2008.

A fresh scat deposited by a domestic cat. The scats of domestic cats appear similar to those of wild cats, such as bobcats. The contents differ in that many domestic cats eat kibble instead of wild prey.

Domestic cat track. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2008.

A nice domestic cat print in drying mud.


Domestic cat with scratch marks in wood from
                    his claws. Copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2005.

Boots, the cat, and his handiwork. He was scratching at the upright log that his paw is resting on in the photo. The claw marks he left are visible. Look for scratch marks on logs, fence posts and other wooden objects wherever there are domestic cats. Birds also use this log as a perch as evidenced by the small scat clinging to the tip.

Domestic cat track in sand. Copyright Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2005.

This nearly perfect cat track was almost obliterated when I stepped on it. Luckily, I saw it and moved my foot in time. I only managed to step on the edge of the heel pad. This track shows very nice definition of the toes, as well as the shape of the leading edge of the heel pad.

Domestic cat
                    track in mud. Copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

A perfect track left by Boots, the cat, in mud. His paws have a lot of fur on the bottoms and some fur marks are visible in this track.

Domestic cat tracks on car trunk. Copyright Kim
                    A. Cabrera 2008.

Domestic cat tracks found on a car trunk. Cats love to climb up on cars. I used to have a neighborhood cat that would hop up on the hood of the car and sleep over the warm engine. Cats do love to be warm.

Boots, the domestic cat, burying his scat.
                    Copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Boots, the cat, burying his scat. Cats are very neat creatures. Burying scat may be related to being stealthy predators and trying to hide their presence from the prey animals. However, many wild cats do not bury their scat. Domestic cats seem to do it more than bobcats do.

                    buried by domestic cat

This is what the buried scat looks like after the cat is done. Boots did a good job here burying his scat.


Bones, the domestic cat, approaching bobcat
                    scat. Copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Bones, my pet cat, approaching a bobcat scat at the river. Domestic cats seem to know the scats of their larger cousins, the bobcats. I have watched her ignore coyote scats and those of gray foxes as well. But she will investigate those of bobcats.


Bones, the domestic cat, sniffing bobcat scat.
                    Copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2008.

Cats rely on scents for many things. Scats and urine are used for marking among felines. Bones, the cat, spent several moments in her examination of this bobcat scat. I have noticed the boundaries that my cats will stay within change as they explore and find scats and urine markings from the wild cats that live in their home.

Domestic cat
                  track. Photo copyright Kim A. Cabrera 2009
Domestic cat track in mud.
Domestic cat track after a rain. Photo copyright
                  Kim A. Cabrera 2009
Same domestic cat track as above, after a rain.
Domestic cat track pair. Photo copyright Kim A.
                  Cabrera 2009
Pair of domestic cat tracks in mud. Right hind at top and right front at bottom.
Domestic cat tracks pair in sun. Photo copyright
                  Kim A. Cabrera 2009
Pair of domestic cat tracks in mud along a river.
cat track
                  that appears to have five toes

A nice pair of overlapping cat tracks made by Boots. His feet are very furry, as you can tell by the fur marks in these pawprints. The print appears to have five toes, but that is because it is actually two prints, one on top of the other. The front track was made first, then the hind foot stepped in that track, making what appears to be one large footprint. Some cats do have more than four toes on their feet. This is called polydactylism. See below for an explanation.       

domestic cat scratch post
Domestic cats use tree trunks, posts, and other objects (like your couch) as scratch posts

domestic cat scratch post
Domestic cat scratch post, this one with a rather ominous decoration - feathers!

Canine vs. Feline tracks (Is it a cat or a dog?)

So, why does my cat have five toes? (or more)

Domestic cats have a fifth toe, with a claw, located higher up the "wrist," which does not usually leave am imprint in the tracks. This claw is called the "killer claw" and is sometimes used in hunting. There is also a sixth pad located even higher up the "wrist" that lacks a claw. Very rarely will you find either of these imprints in the tracks. If you do find them, it is usually because the animal is running. Take a look at the photo below of Junior's foot and you will see both of these structures. (Check the Bobcat page to see a photo of a bobcat track showing these features.) I don't know what function the sixth toe has, other than just being there. The fifth is used to help grip prey. Since cats lack an opposable thumb, it could possibly serve a similar purpose to them. If you do find these imprints in a track, look for other clues as to what the animal was doing. Sometimes you will find them where cats have been playing in damp sand, or running in mud.

There is also another phenomenon which could account for a cat track showing more than four toes. This is called polydactilism. Occasionally, a cat is born with five or six toes on all its feet, plus the "killer claw" and extra pad on the "wrist." This growth of extra toes happens frequently in populations of feral cats, and is also something that cats are bred for. Apparently, it doesn't affect their ability to survive. I once owned a six-toed cat. I now wish I had taken photos of its tracks! There are cats with four to seven toes on a foot! The current world record for a polydactyl cat is 27 toes!!!!


Personal Notes on Domestic Cats

I have had many cats as pets. As any cat owner will say, they are great to have around. Not only do they catch mice, they have some amusing antics too. Most of my cats have been feral cats that I've tried to tame. (In fact, all except one were obtained this way.) Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. By getting feral cats altered, then releasing them, the population of wild cats can be held somewhat in check.
The fine mud in this photo shows the details of the hair on the bottom of the cat's foot. Mud like this tends to be sticky. That is why the patches of mud stuck to the cat's toe and heel pads and were picked up with the foot. If you find tracks like this, look at the next few tracks and you may find where the mud has fallen off. When tracking humans, the mud that falls off a shoe often contains the pattern from the sole. This can be used to positively identify a track. Cat track in fine mud
                  showing the fur details on the bottom of the foot.
                  Quarter for size comparison.
At the top of the page is a fresh cat track, made by my cat, Bones. (Short for Skin-and-Bones. She used to be very skinny.) This is the right front foot. You can tell which foot it is by looking at the placement of the two front toes. One of them is a bit farther ahead of the other. That is the inside toe. Also, this track has a wider, more robust heel pad than the hind foot has. That tells you this is the front foot. Take a look at your cat's feet sometime and you will see that the four feet are not all alike.

Scratches made by a domestic cat digging. The purpose of the digging here was unclear. It was not to bury scat. Perhaps this cat, like some wild cats, was trying to scrape together a mound of debris to mark territory.

Domestic cat left front foot. Cat was sleeping
                    when this photo was taken.

This is the left front foot of a domestic cat. (NOTE: No cats were harmed to obtain this photo. My cat was sleeping when I snuck up on him and took the picture. See photo below.) The heel pad on the front foot (called the metacarpal pad) is larger than that of the hind foot. Front feet are generally larger than hind feet on many animals, including cats and dogs. The fifth 'toe' located further up on the left of the wrist does have a claw and it is used in hunting. This is called the "killer claw." (AKA the dewclaw, or toe #1) Often it is assumed that cats only have four claws on their feet, but they actually do use this claw when hunting. Bobcats and mountain lions also have this extra claw. The pad on the right, furthest from the toes, is just a pad without a claw. It is called the carpal pad, named for the bone which is underneath it. Cat hind feet do not have any extra pads or claws, just the four toes with their claws.
This is Junior the cat. He is the offspring of Bones the cat. He gladly allowed me to take a picture of his foot to show the structure of the pads. (Actually, he didn't even know I did it. He was sound asleep in the warmth of the heater at the time.) Looks comfy, doesn't he? Cats spend incredible amounts of time napping.

                    the cat, sleeping in front of the heater.

                    the cat.

Furry cat paw.
                    Boots the cat's foot. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2007.

Cats' paws often have a lot of fur on the bottoms. This helps keep their toes warm in winter.

Parts of a
                    cat's paw. Bones the cat. Photo copyright by Kim A.
                    Cabrera 2007.

The parts of a cat's foot. A is the carpal pad. B is the dewclaw, also called the "killer claw" because they use it to grasp prey. C is the heel pad or metacarpal pad. The toes are not labeled in this photo. The toes are called the digital pads because they are the cat's digits, just like our human fingers are our digits. There are five toes on the front foot, including the dewclaw. However, only four usually show up in the tracks. The toes are numbered from one to five, with the dewclaw being toe number one. Thanks to Bones for letting me photograph her foot.

Fat deposits underneath the skin on the cat's pads act as shock absorbers for jumping and landing.

Domestic cat track showing all details.
                    Copyright by Kim A. Cabrera 2002.

This excellent domestic cat track shows all the details. The claw marks show, which is unusual. This track was made while jumping, so the toes are splayed, the claws registered, and you can see both the dewclaw pad and carpal pad imprints. This is the right front footprint. There is even a tiny white hair stuck to the left inner toe print. This track was made by my cat, Bones, who has white fur on her feet.

Cat and
                    mouse tracks. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera

This photo shows a lot of mouse activity. These numerous tracks were found near the entrance to a culvert. There was a lot of mouse activity going on within 20 feet of this location as well. I had my cat along on this walk and he jumped down into the culvert opening and left the two cat tracks seen above. Predator and prey in one photo. The cat tracks can be difficult to see at first, but look closely. Look for compressed areas where there is a lack of mouse sign.

Domestic cat. Photo copyright by Kim A. Cabrera

All photos Copyright 1999, 2007, 2012 by Kim A. Cabrera


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