Signs of a Healthy Cat

Part 2: The Upper Body of a Healthy Cat

Drawing of the Muscle-Skeletal System of a Cat
Drawing of the Muscle-Skeletal System of a Cat. Image is Public Domain, Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The well-toned upper body of a healthy cat will give the impression of supple strength, which in movement translates to speed, agility, and grace. To see a cat crouched down on the hunt for prey, and moving in a slow motion "crawl" is poetry in motion. His frame is aligned perfectly, and every muscle, tendon, and bone move in tandem.

The Muscular-Skeletal Structure of a Healthy Cat

Standing at rest, in profile, a healthy cat will look evenly balanced.
His head will be held high, supported by his neck and strong shoulder muscles. His rib cage encloses and protects the heart, lungs, liver, and gall bladder. At a healthy weight, a cat's ribs may be felt, but are not prominently visual. The bone structure is covered and supported by a systems of muscles, ligaments, and tendons, which work together to give the healthy cat's limbs strength, mobility, and speed.

The Front Legs and Feet of a Healthy Cat

The front legs of a healthy cat are used for balance, running, climbing, and catching prey. The elbows are held close to the body while standing and thrust forward when walking. When a cat is stretching laterally or scratching a scratching post vertically, the front lets may be fully extended, forming an almost straight line.

Walking Pattern of a Healthy Cat

Unlike humans who walk on the heels and balls of our feet, cats walk on their toes with the "heel" never touching the ground, which makes them digitigrade mammals.

Dogs and horses are also digitigrade mammals; animals who walk on the whole sole of the foot, including humans, rabbits, and bears, are called plantigrade mammals. Cats have a unique way of walking, by moving the front and back legs forward in parallel tandem, i.e., right front and right back leg forward, left front and left back leg forward.

In the next step, the cat will place his left back foot in exactly the same place the left front foot just vacated. This is an instinctive protective measure, which leaves a much smaller and quieter track, making it harder for predators to scent and follow.

Cats' Front Toes and Claws

A healthy cat usually has ten toes in front. The exceptions are polydactyl cats, often called "Hemingway Cats," which have multiple toes. Cats' toes are very strong; they use them to grip and hold surfaces when climbing, to pull their body upward. A cat chasing a rubber ball (or a mouse) can easily catch it with his toes, then hold it by curling his toes and claws inward.

The cat's claws are an integral part of his feet. They are the original "multi-use tool," invaluable for climbing; capturing and killing prey; and for protection from predators and other enemies. A cat's claw consists of the sharp, visible nail portion, covered with a disposable sheath; connected to the P3 toe bone with ligaments and tendons. (See photo of drawing.) To keep his claws sharp, a cat scratches rough surfaces, such as trees, wood posts, sisal, and sometimes furniture or carpeting.

The clawing does not actually sharpen the claw as much as dislodging the protective transparent sheath. You may occasionally find these abandoned sheaths on the floor.

Scratching: Healthy Exercise for Cats

Observe a cat using a tall scratching post. He will stretch his spine and forelegs to the top of the post, hook his claws into the substrate, and pull strongly downward. This activity combines two kinds of exercise: range of motion and resistance, and builds strong, supple muscles and healthy joints and tendons. Joey, one of my cats, has a derivation of this exercise: he "works it on down," gradually scratching lower and lower on the post until is is crouched at the bottom. The same kind of "stretch, grab, and pull" exercise can be accomplished laterally too, with flat scratching mats. It is advisable to place several different scratching posts and pads around the home, for a variety in scratching exercises, to help your cat maintain his upper body health.

Declawing a Healthy Cat

Sometimes cat owners who worry about their cat clawing furniture think declawing is the logical solution. Some veterinarians agree; others buy into the "otherwise we'll put the cat to sleep" argument. Some veterinarians even offer declawing routinely, as a "combo" with a spay/neuter surgery, under the premise that the cat only needs to be anesthetized once.

Many people (this writer included) believe that declawing is an inhumane procedure, with no redeeming value to the cat; unlike spay/neutering, which both provide medical as well as social benefits.

Take a look at the accompanying image. Now imagine chopping off those entire first toe joints with a guillotine. That is what declawing is about: a completely unnecessary surgery, especially when there are so many humane alternatives. Occasionally, a medical professional might advise "getting rid of the cat" or declawing it to an immunocompromised person. No two such cases are alike and everyone must make his own choices. In my opinion, that is one of the the only legitimate reasons for declawing (The other is emergency surgery to repair a badly injured foot.)

A Healthy Cat's Coat

Whether you call it "hair" or "fur," a healthy cat's coat should be clean, shiny, and free of mats. You can help keep your cat's coat shiny with a healthy diet. A cat fed a diet of "grocery store" food will often develop a dry, coarse-looking coat. I've read story upon story of the amazing change in cats' coats after a few weeks of eating premium cat food. All of the "coat supplements" in the world will not compare to the every-day feeding of a superior diet.

Hairballs, Mats and Grooming

Unless a cat travels the show circuit, he will rarely require human assistance with bathing. Cats do an admirable job of keeping their coats clean with frequent, short grooming sessions throughout the day. The barbs on their tongues act as fine-toothed combs, and both clean the individual hairs, but also pull loose hairs out, helping to prevent mats. Unfortunately, those loose hairs are often swallowed by the cat, and can clump together forming nasty hairballs, which can lead to bowel obstruction, if not prevented. Hairballs tend to develop more often in longhair cats or cats with dense undercoats, although no cat can be truly free of them.

Unsightly, Painful Mats

Occasional small mats can be quickly dealt with if you catch them early enough. Here's how to de-mat a cat. Large hair mats can develop quickly in older arthritic cats who can't easily groom certain areas of their bodies. Mats are not only esthetically unpleasing, they are downright painful for these cats. They pull against the skin, making it painful for a cat to lie down in a normal position.

If you've somehow missed seeing these mats, the sight of an older cat sleeping sitting up is a red flag for possible mats. They are not only painful, but provide a breeding ground for fleas, skin irritation, even fungus infections.

A regular grooming program can help ensure against the development of hair mats, hairballs, and skin problems. You should include ear examination and cleaning, if necessary; claw trimming; examining and brushing your cat's teeth, and brushing or combing the cats coat. I suggest these intervals:

  • Combing/Brushing: Daily
  • Tooth Cleaning: At least twice a week
  • Claw Trimming: Twice a Month; more often as needed
  • Ear Exam: Monthly; Cleaning only as needed

These are all reasons I urge cat caregivers to be aware of the normal condition of a healthy cat, so you can spot potential problems before they become serious health risks. A grooming session is a good place to start.