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What Is a Digitigrade? Vet-Reviewed Science of How Pets Walk

Written by: Melissa Gunter

Last Updated on April 11, 2024 by Dogster Team

two brown dogs running on snow on grass

What Is a Digitigrade? Vet-Reviewed Science of How Pets Walk


Dr. Paola Cuevas Photo


Dr. Paola Cuevas

Veterinarian, MVZ

The information is current and up-to-date in accordance with the latest veterinarian research.

Learn more »

Have you ever sat and watched the way your pet walks? While this may not be a common thing for most of us to do, it is something we need to understand. As it turns out, there are classifications for all animals that describe their mode of locomotion. The classification used for many pets, including dogs, cats, and other mammals, is digitigrade. What is a digitigrade when it comes to the science of how pets walk? To put it simply, mammals that walk digitigrade are those that walk on their toes instead of actually touching the ground using their heels. Digitigrades are what give a dog’s leg that distinctive hook shape they have. Let’s learn more about what a digitigrade is and the science of how our pets walk.


Digitigrade Characteristics

When looking at the leg of a digitigrade animal, you’ll notice a lot of differences when comparing them to a human. The hind legs of cats and dogs are most similar to our legs and feet. The area of their leg that would correspond with our ankles is located higher up on their leg. When it comes to their front legs, those are most compared to our wrists and hands. This setup allows these animals to move quicker and quieter in comparison to other animals. The posture of their foot allows the heel to offer support for body weight when these animals run, walk, or stand. You’ll also find that many digitigrade-characterized animals have two sets of legs to make all this easier for them.

hare vs cat feet
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The Advantages & Disadvantages of Being Digitigrade

As we’ve already mentioned, being a digitigrade animal helps our pets when it comes to movement. It allows them to move quieter than other animals. This is ideal when they are hunting and need to sneak up on prey. This way of walking also gives them extra speed when it comes to catching the prey or escaping a possible predator. While the pets living in our homes may not need to hunt for their food, there are dogs, cats, and birds in the wild that use this extra spring in their step to ensure they and the animals they live with get meals and stay protected.

When it comes to dogs and cats, being digitigrade is mostly an advantage. Unfortunately, there are also bipedal digitigrade animals, like chickens and ostriches. These animals can also be quiet and move quickly, however, they aren’t the most stable animals out there. This makes them quite easy to knock over. In a play situation, this can be comical. However, for animals in the wild, this can be seen as a weakness. Animals of prey can use this to their advantage making it more difficult for these types of animals to survive in certain situations.

a desert lynx cat on a tree branch
Image Credit: Michal Ninger, Shutterstock



When looking at the science of how pets walk, how their legs are designed plays a major role in all aspects of their lives. For digitigrade animals, the advantage of having an extra spring in your step, stealth, and quickness is undeniable. The next time you see your pet walking through the house, take a moment to watch their movements and revel in the uniqueness of your animal and how science has ensured they have the opportunity to thrive in nature.

Featured Image: Vincent van Zalinge, Unsplash

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