Walking on toes not feet – what it means
We know that cats walk on their toes (digitigrades). I created a photograph of this years ago in which I showed my hand as if I was walking on it like a cat. You can see it below and I hope it helps understand what it is like to walk on your toes. When a cat walks on their entire foot (plantigrade) it looks very peculiar. Some people refer to this as a cat walking on their hocks but I think that’s slightly wrong because the hock is a joint. It’s the joint between the foot and the lower leg. That is the joint between the tarsal bones of the foot and the tibia of the leg.
So, in this article we are talking about the reasons why a cat might, unusually, walk on their entire hind feet rather than just on their hind toes. The forelegs must also be affected but perhaps less so because they are nearer the heart.
Don’t forget that the paw pads are under the toes of their feet not under the whole of the foot. To reiterate, a cat’s paws are not their feet strictly speaking. The paws are their toes while the foot extends all the way back to the hock as per the diagram on this page.
I wanted to get that out of the way completely because it’s important in the way we describe a cat walking on their feet rather than their toes. If a cat is walking on thier feet it means that they are suffering pain, discomfort and weakness in their feet. And the cause is nearly always, on my research, feline diabetes mellitus (sugar diabetes).
This condition results in high blood sugar levels in the blood which causes nerve damage throughout the body and the distal elements of the body, that is those elements which are the farthest from the heart, are damaged the most. My reading of this is it occurs because the blood flow is slower in the feet. So a domestic cat with sugar diabetes ends up with damaged nerves in their feet. The condition is called neuropathy.
Neuropathy results in numbness, tingling and/or a burning sensation and perhaps sharp pains or cramps and an increased sensitivity to touch in their toes and feet. So it hurts to walk on their toes which causes them to walk on their feet which I presume is still painful but less so than walking on their toes which becomes impossible. There may also be muscle weakness which is a further reason why a cat will drop down to walking on their hocks to use the slightly incorrect terminology. The muscle weakness probably comes from the nerves being unable to send signals to the muscles. Ultimately there can be paralysis.
It is worth noting though that the root cause of a cat walking on their feet i.e. on their hocks, is often neuropathy in the hind limbs. I conclude, therefore, that any condition which causes neuropathy in the hind limbs can result in a cat walking on their hocks. It just so happens that it is nearly always diabetes. Also injury to the toes might cause it. Can botched declawing cause a at to walk in their hocks? Yes, I believe it can. I remember seeing a badly declawed mountain lion walking on its hocks.
The “cure” for neuropathy caused by diabetes is to regulate blood sugar levels through insulin.