Cats really are the most remarkable creatures, and their skeleton’s are absolutely fascinating. But what exactly makes a cat skeleton so special?
Did you know that cats have more bones than humans, even if you ignore their tail. However, just like us, their bones can become damaged, diseased, or develop irregularities.
In this article, I’m going to share with you some interesting facts about a cats skeleton. We’ll look at the structure of a cat’s bony-frame, what it does, the different types of bones, and of course a pointer on how to spot when something’s gone wrong.
Let’s start by talking about how cats jump so high, do amazing acrobatics mid-air, and land again on all-fours with so little effort. How do they do this?
Well, apart from well-developed muscles, the key is actually in their skeletons. By the way, that special landing ability is usually known as the ‘righting reflex’, it’s what allows cats to reorient themselves mid-air so that they usually land on their feet.
Incredible, isn’t it? But, it’s true, it’s a cat’s skeleton that allows it to twist and turn, to pounce at weird angles, and not get hurt. They have a few additional bones that we don’t have, and these extras give them added flexibility.
With that in mind, did you know that a cat’s tail is what it uses to balance? I knew that, but what I didn’t know was just how a cat’s tail is formed, or just how it helps them balance and leap about so accurately. We’ll have a better look at this later.
However, just like its tail for balancing, cats have a couple of extra vertebrae in their backs for dynamic movement. Because of the extra vertebrae in their spines, their movements are much more exaggerated than ours.
Yep, they have quite a few more bones than you’d think. In fact, they have 15% more bones than we do. That’s right, on average cats have around 250 bones, whereas adult humans have only 206 – we’re born with 270, but 64 of those will fuse together as we grow.
Isn’t amazing how many bones are in there, and how they all work together so that our cats can do such incredible things. I am surprised by how small some of the bones are, they’re so small they’re barely millimeters wide and they’re in their ears.
These are the bones that carry sound so effectively, it’s what gives our fearless puss such pinpoint accuracy when they’re hunting; they’ll hear that rustle and pounce long before we see a mouse move.
A cat’s skeleton is a complex piece of anatomy. Honed over millennia of evolution, this remarkable framework is a true marvel of nature. Why? Well, let’s start with the two major areas of development, the Axial and Appendicular skeletons.
The Axial skeleton is a fancy-pants way of identifying your cat’s upper-body and head. It’s made up of the mandible (or the lower section of the jaw), and the lingual bone (the H-shaped bone that allows for puss to swallow his dinner), the spinal cord, ribs, and finally the sternum.
The Appendicular skeleton is from the thorax outwards, it’s these limbs, or arms and legs, and parts like the clavicles, scapular (shoulders), and pelvic bones. See, cats are quite similarly built to us; these similarities also help when remembering the names of the bones.
Previously we’ve mentioned that cats have 250 bones, this is an average and that does mean that some cats will have more and others will have less. Why? Well, tail length is not standard across all breeds, and some cats have smaller or fused bones.
Just like us, cats can have fused bones, and this will lower the number of bones found in their body overall. One place you’ll see this is in their pelvis. It looks like one giant bone, but in reality, it’s made up of six bones, which makes two pairs of three; left and right pelvic bones.
Another example is the cat’s skull. It appears as one bone, but when you look closely, it’s much more complex. This sort of fusing happens over a long period of time, from being a kitten through to maturity, and is a natural part of their physical development.
Small, but mighty, these tiny bones might be far too small to see with the naked eye, but the job they do is massive. Remember those three bones we mentioned before, that are located in puss’ ears? Well, they’re just one example of these types of bones.
It’s these tiny bones that allow cats to hunt and hone in on their target with such precision. It’s a well-known fact that the smaller the bone, the greater the transference of information they carry.
For example, in the late 90s, we had dial-up Internet, and it gave us the world-wide-web. However, it’s the fiber optic broadband that we use now that speeds everything up and gives us live streaming, etc. These small bones do the same thing.
Within the Axial skeleton is, of course, the skull, and this comprises of 24 bones alone. Some of them are so fine that they’re almost invisible, like the ones in puss’ ears. With this many bones, and all of them performing remarkable jobs, it’s no wonder that cats are super-hunting machines.
A cat’s skull is made of up the following bones:
- Premaxillary and maxillary bones
- Nasal and ethmoid
- Vomer and palatine
- Interparietal and occipital bones
- Sphenoid and the presphenoid
- Temporal bone
- Zygomatic bones
- Lacrimal bones
- Frontal plate
If you have heard of some of these bones before, that’s because some are consistent with bones found in humans. For a full list of the cat anatomy click here.
Just like a tightrope walker has a balancing pole, cats have one built into their bodies. This aide is what gives them the steadiness to make those gigantic leaps, and of course, it also guides them back to land safely.
Does every cat get the same tail? No, some cats have shorter tails, and some breeds are known for having longer tails. It’s estimated that most cats will average between 18 and 23 caudal vertebrae in their tale.
Does that mean that cats with short tails can’t jump? Not at all, however, it does mean that your cat is less likely to jump as high as other longer-tailed cats. These shorter-tailed cats have other remarkable abilities that are better suited to life on the ground or at sea.
For instance, the Manx cat is known for its hunting skills, making it legendary for seeing the world as a ship’s cat back in the days of long sea-voyages.
From head to toe, a cat’s flexibility and agility comes from its spine. The superhighway of information and muscle control, it’s here that cats get their super-powers. With seven vertebrae in each of the lumbar and cervical areas and 13 thoracic vertebrae, cats are built to twist and turn.
These additional three vertebrae, as compared to a human spine, it is what gives cats their extra bend and flex. With that flexibility, they can reach objects that are moving at high-speeds, like a bird flying past, and can change direction mid-air.
The spine is inherently what makes the cat skeleton so special. It’s why cheetahs can run as fast as they do and what allows our domestic cat to spring into action.
When it comes time to relax, these extra bones allow for them to stretch out lazily, often arching their backs at jaw-dropping angles. These additional vertebrae are also directly related to the ‘righting reflex’ we mentioned earlier, without them this mid-air acrobatics would end less favorably.
With each thoracic limb, there are 31 bones connected. From the shoulder joint, these are the scapula, clavicle, and omoplate, into the humerus, radius, and ulna. From here there are another seven bones that make up the paw, or carpus.
This includes the scaphoid, capitate, pisiform, trapezoid, trapezium, and the hamate. And this is just in puss’ arms; his legs are just as amazing.
So how many bones are in a cat’s leg? How about 29. Going from his ‘hips’ down there is the coccyx, then femur and patella or kneecap, tibia and fibula, just like us. Then you get to the ‘foot’, or his paw, there are seven tarsal bones in his ankle, and of course another round of metacarpus and phalanges. Now that’s a lot of bones to make a song about.
What’s that all mean? Well, it means they’re capable of immense flexibility and agility. This means that they can make huge leaps, often multiple times higher than their body length. It also gives them superior abilities to land smoothly, without jarring joints or causing injury to themselves.
Rounding out the cat skeleton is the paw bones. There are five metacarpus bones and fourteen phalanges at the paw’s front. These are some of the smallest bones in a cat’s skeleton, yet they give our cat their dexterity and defenses.
It’s these bones that make our cat’s paws almost human-like. With them, they can catch, carry, hold on to things, and pull things apart. At the ends of their ‘fingers’ are of course their claws. What a lot of people don’t know is that these claws are directly connected to phalanges, the tiny little bones at the end of puss’ paw.
When cats are declawed, they cut this bone from the paw. If you’d like more detailed information on declawing, we have a great article here.
Sadly, yes. Inside every bone is bone tissue, and although this is extremely resistant to infection, it can happen. Most cats will never have any type of bone infection, as the most common cause is contact with bacteria when surgery has been performed, regardless of how minor or major.
Cats can also inherit bone diseases from their predecessors. These can be diagnosed, and are usually known to a reputable breeder if this is a concern. One tell-tale sign to watch out for is limping or favoring a limb.
If your cat is showing any tenderness towards any area of their skeleton, whether arms, legs, back or head, take them to the vet for a thorough check.
One way to help prevent bone conditions is to ensure a varied diet that includes essential vitamins, minerals, and fibers that are usually found in their regular protein and carbohydrates. Diets should also include appropriate fats and oils for joint health, especially as your cat gets on in years.
Whilst bone diseases and conditions are relatively rare, there are a few that are predominant. These include; Osteomyelitis, Osteogenesis imperfecta or brittle bone disease, and Osteofibrosis.
Treatments do exist for all of these, some are much more complex and lengthy. In the case of osteomyelitis, this type of infection is born from bacteria entering the bloodstream, so sanitation and antibiotics will be involved. Early detection and action are essential.
Osteogenesis is more common in dogs than cats and is usually inherited. It appears as bone fractures that can happen easily, along with loss of hearing, hypermobility of joints, a blue-tinge to eyes, and defective teeth.
Osteofibrosis is usually seen in older cats and is caused by a lack of calcium; this can be readily treated with increased vitamins and minerals in their diet. This condition usually manifests in fractures and misshapen or malformed bones. Early diagnosis is encouraged, so look for limping, or if your cat is struggling to get up for a cuddle.
So if you had any doubts before about how amazing your cat is, by now you’ll be as astonished as I am. Between the sheer number of bones, the evolutionary design that allows them such incredible movement, and the intricate abilities of even the tiniest bone is stunning.