Feline movement could be described as grace on paws. Cats have a variety of movements and gaits and can instantly switch from a slow, sensual walk to a slinky strut to a full-on burst of speed. Recognizing your cat’s movements is one of the keys to understanding his emotions and behaviors.
Form Defines Function
As beautiful as the fluid movement is to watch, make no mistake: it serves a predatory purpose. The carnivore lifestyle requires speed, flexibility, and agility to manipulate prey as well as for self-defense. Feline anatomy is built to order with front and hind legs having different structure and functional roles. Let’s start at the front and move to the back.
The collarbone, or clavicle, is small, or in some cats completely absent. It isn’t fused to the skeleton but attached to the chest by muscle. This design narrows the chest, allowing legs and feet to stay close together, permitting speed, long strides, flexibility, and efficient impact absorption.
The front legs are more flexible in rotation, with elbows that are hinged backward and slightly bent, shorter and straighter than the hind legs, and attached to the body by ligament and muscle. Front legs carry approximately 60 percent of body weight and are designed to catch the body weight that the hind legs propel forward.
The less flexible hind legs move forward and backward. They are longer and more angular than the front legs, propelling the cat forward and up and over objects.
At the base of each leg are the paws: fleshy, hairless, sensitive pads that support the body. Front paws have five toes each and back paws four toes each, for a total of 18. Feline toes have sharp, curved claws for gripping, climbing, protection, and balance. Cats are digitigrade; that is, they walk on their toes and the ball of the foot. The digitigrade posture enables the quick, quiet movement that defines stealthy predators.
Finally, the supple, flexible spine compresses and extends, allowing long strides for running and leaping.
Walk This Way
Adult cats engage several gaits in active movement. Gait is a sequence of foot movements, in a particular pattern, that include walk, trot, canter, and run. Gait choice depends on efficiency, terrain, and survival circumstances.
Walk. This is the cat at leisure. It’s a four-beat gait, meaning each paw touches the ground at separate times during the stride: that is, lifted, swung forward, and set back on the ground. The legs move diagonally, starting with one of the front legs and the opposite hind leg moving in unison. Energy conscious, cats place the hind foot almost in the front paw print. Depending on the speed of walk, either two or three feet touch the ground. In this gait, the head may be shoulder height, slightly higher or slightly lower. The tail is carried straight out, slightly lower than the spine or straight up.
Trot. When something piques your cat’s curiosity or he’s on a mission to get from one place to another, he engages this purposeful stride. This is an energy-efficient, stable, two-beat gait with diagonally opposite paws on the ground simultaneously. Head placement is usually lower than the shoulder. The tail is often carried straight out from the body, lower than the back, perhaps with a slight tilt at the tip.
Pace. Pacing is a two-beat gait similar to the trot except front and hind legs of the same side of the body move in unison.
Canter. This moderate gait is faster than a trot but slower than a run. It’s a three-beat gait with at least one paw always contacting the ground and at certain phases as many as three paws on the ground. As either the front legs or hind legs contact the ground, the last paw to touch down is placed in advance of the other. The advance paw is called the “lead leg,” and the cat can canter on either right lead or left lead.
Run. This gait, also called a fast gallop, is the fastest gait. It’s used in short bursts to escape predators or chase prey. It’s a three-beat gait but differs from canter in that it may have a single or double suspension phase. A suspension phase means there’s no limb touching the ground. The hind legs drive the body forward with all four feet simultaneously in the air and the spine fully extended. One front leg lands a nanosecond before the other and the spine compresses, drawing the hindquarters under the body and enabling the back legs to touch down again, one just before the other. The back legs cross the front legs as they hit the ground, known as overreaching.
Watching a cat move is pleasurable in and of itself, but it can also provide you with valuable information about your cat’s wellbeing. For instance, a change in gait can indicate pain from arthritis or injuries or be a sign of cognitive deficits. Be familiar with your cat’s normal movements so you can recognize any changes of concern and bring them to your veterinarian’s attention if necessary.
This article was reviewed/edited by board-certified veterinary behaviorist Dr. Kenneth Martin and/or veterinary technician specialist in behavior Debbie Martin, LVT.