Cats are digitigrade mammals, meaning they do, in fact, walk on their toes. Humans and bears, conversely, are plantigrade mammals. We walk on the soles of our feet, with the toes only touching the ground briefly toward the end of each step. This is evident when you look at footprints. Let’s say you step in some ink and walk across the floor. Your footprint will consist of your sole — front and back — with maybe a lesser mark left behind by your toes.
If your cat stepped in ink, you would clearly see its palm pad and five toes in its footprints. With less foot touching the surface, your cat experiences less friction and conserves more upward energy. Cats and other digitigrade animals therefore tend to be very fast runners, according to Jinny Johnson and John Burton, authors of the book Animal Tracks and Signs. They point out that, as cats walk or run, they usually retract their claws into sheaths, leaving behind just the smooth, small toes and footpad. It’s no wonder that cats can tiptoe near us almost in silence. Dogs and foxes, like cats, are also toe-walkers.
Horses, donkeys and zebras are known as hoof-walkers. They just have one hoof-covered “toe” on each foot. This gives them good traction for navigating steep or otherwise difficult-to-traverse surfaces, yet they can run fast too.
Cloven hoof–walkers, such as deer and cattle, possess four toes on each foot. Two of these have tough, split hooves. The hooved toes are used most of the time, with the other two toes often lifted off the ground. I like to think of these as four-wheel-drive animals, since the other two toes only go into action when the animal is walking on a soft surface, like deep snow.
The next time you see an animal, pay attention to its feet and toes. They can tell you a lot about how that animal moves and where its ancestors mostly lived.