Can Cats Absorb Things Through Their Paws?

bottom of the paw of a grey cat

Last updated on July 23rd, 2023 at 09:42 am

Let’s face it, cats go wherever they please most of the time, exploring every nook and cranny of their surroundings. But have you ever wondered can cats absorb the chemicals they encounter along their adventurous paths through their paws?

Cats can absorb substances through their foot pad skin, just like the skin on other parts of their bodies. However, this pales in comparison to the risk of chemical exposure and absorption when the cat licks these substances off their paws or fur.

In this article, we will delve into the science behind a cat’s paw pads and explore how and why they can indeed absorb chemicals.

By understanding the anatomy and physiology of a cat’s paws, we can separate fact from fiction and gain a clearer understanding of how cats interact with their environment.

The Anatomy of a Cat’s Paw

To understand if cats can absorb chemicals via their paws, we need to look at the anatomy of a cat’s paw.

A cat’s paw consists of several distinct parts, including the digits (toes), each with a pad and a retractable claw. The pads, in particular, play a vital role in a cat’s daily activities and serve multiple functions. They provide cushioning, enhance traction, and aid in balance and movement.

Additionally, the pads are covered with specialized skin that is thick for protection and that contains a high concentration of nerve endings, contributing to a cat’s keen sense of touch. There are also sweat glands that produce sweat to help keep the cat cool.

The cat’s foot pads are where the question of whether or not cats can absorb chemicals through their paws comes in. It is a well-known fact that the skin is somewhat permeable and able to absorb certain substances. Since the cat’s foot pads are covered in skin, it seems reasonable that the same could happen with them.

But is this really true?

Understanding Skin Absorption

So, picture this: you’re at a pool party, and you decide to take a dip. But before jumping in, your friend warns you about a mysterious green liquid that’s been spilled in the water. Yikes! You definitely don’t want that stuff seeping into your skin, right?

Intuitively, you don’t swim in green goo because you don’t want that stuff getting on and into your body. In the majority of instances, the skin is pretty amazing at keeping things out. But there’s always an exception to the rule.

Some substances, like certain creams or medications, can sneak past the skin’s barrier and get absorbed into the body. But why can some substances be absorbed but not others?

The outermost layer of the skin, called the stratum corneum, acts as a barrier against the penetration of foreign substances. This layer consists of densely packed cells embedded in a lipid-rich matrix. The lipids play a crucial role in maintaining the skin’s integrity and barrier function.

However, foreign substances such as oils and solvents possess properties that enable them to interact with the skin’s lipids. When oils or solvents encounter the lipids in the stratum corneum, they can disrupt the ordered structure of the lipid matrix.

This disruption of the lipid matrix can lead to an increase in the permeability of the stratum corneum. As a result, substances that would normally have difficulty crossing the skin barrier can more easily penetrate through the skin layers and enter the underlying tissues and the blood.

Furthermore, oils and solvents may also increase absorption by extracting lipids from the stratum corneum, thereby further weakening the barrier function of the skin. This lipid extraction can create temporary pathways for substances to follow, allowing their passage into the skin.

The degree of absorption depends on various factors, including the properties of the specific oils or solvents, their concentration, the duration of exposure, and the characteristics of the substance being absorbed.

Additionally, the interaction between lipids and oils/solvents is not a universal phenomenon and may vary depending on individual differences in the skin.

paw of a grey and white cat

Evidence Of Cats Being Exposed To Chemicals

Numerous scientific studies have provided compelling evidence that pets, including dogs and cats, are exposed to a wide range of chemicals present in their environment. These studies have examined the presence of these chemicals in the blood of pets to assess the extent of exposure and potential health risks.

For instance, research has identified common household chemicals, such as flame retardants, phthalates, and pesticides, in the blood of dogs and cats.

Additionally, environmental pollutants, such as heavy metals and industrial contaminants, have been detected in the blood of pets living in contaminated areas or exposed to polluted environments.

The detection of these chemicals in pet blood samples provides concrete evidence of exposure and indicates that these substances can enter the bloodstream and potentially affect the health of animals.

Furthermore, studies have linked chemical exposure in pets to adverse health effects, including hormonal disruptions, immune system dysfunction, and increased risk of certain diseases.

So there is little doubt that cats are being exposed to – and absorbing into their bodies – chemicals in their environment. But is this happening via their paws?

Can Cats Absorb Chemicals Through The Skin Of Their Paws?

So we know that some substances can be absorbed through the skin, and we know that the pads of a cat’s paws are covered with skin. Therefore, yes, some chemicals can be absorbed through the cat’s paws, particularly those that are solvent or oil in nature. There is a “but”, however……

But, while it’s true that some substances can be absorbed through the skin, the characteristics of a cat’s paw pads make them less susceptible to absorption:

  • Thickness: The skin on paw pads is relatively thicker compared to the skin on other parts of the body. This thickness acts as a natural barrier that makes it more difficult for substances to penetrate through and be absorbed. It’s like having an extra layer of protection.
  • Collagen fibers: Paw pads contain a dense network of collagen fibers, which further contributes to their strength and resilience. These fibers provide additional support to the skin, making it even more challenging for chemicals to pass through.
  • Reduced hair follicles: Unlike the skin on other areas of a cat’s body, paw pads have fewer hair follicles. Hair follicles can serve as pathways for the absorption of substances, but with fewer hair follicles present on paw pads, the opportunities for absorption are reduced.

Their natural thickness, collagen fibers, and reduced hair follicles all contribute to their role in protecting the cat’s paws from external chemicals. So although yes, cats can absorb chemicals through their paws, the total absorption will be less than if the exposure occurred on other parts of their bodies.

On the other hand, if a cat’s paw pads are injured, such as having cuts or abrasions, the absorption potential may increase. Damaged skin can compromise the protective barrier and allow substances to enter more easily.

can cats absorb chemicals through their paws -grey and white cat licking its paw

The Role of Grooming And Ingestion In Cat’s Chemical Exposure

Although we’ve established that some substances can be absorbed through a cat’s paws, here’s the kicker – this is not the primary route of chemical exposure in cats. Rather, grooming and subsequent ingestion of chemicals are likely to be the most significant routes of exposure.

Transfer of Chemicals to Fur and Feet

Most cats have lots of fur which, well….just sticks to stuff. When cats come into contact with chemicals, whether through direct exposure or by walking on surfaces treated with substances, some of these chemicals may adhere to their fur.

Also, cats go where cats want. Unfortunately, this also means they can find themselves in places where they shouldn’t be, such as walking on freshly waxed floors or wet paint.

Grooming Behavior

Cats are meticulous groomers, spending a significant amount of time licking their fur. Grooming serves multiple purposes, including cleaning their coat, removing dirt or debris, and maintaining body temperature.

However, during this process, cats will also ingest substances that are present on their fur or skin, including their feet. So if they’ve walked through wet paint, they are likely also licking and swallowing that wet paint that is on their feet.

Efficient Absorption in the Digestive System

The digestive system of cats is well-equipped to absorb a wide range of substances efficiently. The gastrointestinal tract, including the stomach and intestines, has a large surface area with specialized cells designed for absorption.

Consequently, chemicals that are ingested during grooming can be readily absorbed into the bloodstream.

Adding It All Together

While paw pads can absorb certain substances, their role in overall chemical exposure in cats is considered secondary. Paw pads have relatively thick and less permeable skin, limiting the absorption of chemicals through this route.

That doesn’t mean that cats can walk wherever they please without consequence. Certain chemicals, like solvents and oils, are more likely to be absorbed through the skin than others.

But more than that, anything that ends up on the paws of a cat is going to end up in its mouth as it grooms and cleans itself. Ingestion during grooming is the more significant route of chemical exposure for cats.

Walking across a varnished table, for example, is perfectly safe for a cat so long as the varnish is completely dry. If the varnish is wet, then it will get on the cat’s paws, be licked off, and absorbed through the digestive system while a smaller amount may be absorbed across the skin of the foot pads.

If the cat absorbs enough of the chemical, it may make them sick or even kill them, depending on the type of chemical and how much is absorbed into their body. Keep an eye out for signs of illness if you think your cat has been exposed to a harmful chemical.

Conclusion

In summary, while paw pads have limited absorption capabilities, it is crucial to recognize that anything present on a cat’s paws will likely end up in its mouth during grooming.

Either way, it is important for cat owners to be aware of potential chemical hazards in their environment and take necessary precautions to minimize exposure.

This includes keeping toxic substances out of reach, using pet-safe cleaning products, and ensuring that any treated surfaces or materials are dry and free from harmful chemicals before allowing cats to come into contact with them.

By understanding the routes of chemical exposure and taking proactive measures, we can help safeguard the health and well-being of our furry family members.

Note: This information is a general guideline and should not substitute professional veterinary advice. Always consult with your veterinarian for specific guidance and treatment recommendations for your cat’s unique situation

ginger cat curled up sleeping on its paws

Author

  • Dr. Wendy Wilkins, DVM, PhD

    Dr. Wendy Wilkins is an experienced veterinarian and epidemiologist with over 20 years of expertise. She holds a Doctor of Veterinary Medicine (DVM) degree and a Doctorate in Epidemiology from the University of Saskatchewan. Throughout her career, Dr. Wilkins has excelled in clinical practice, academia, research, and regulatory veterinary medicine. She is a respected voice in knowledge dissemination, delivering factual information in a readable and understandable manner through articles, books, and public engagements.

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