Why Are My Cat’s Paws Sore and Swollen?

Dear Most Esteemed and Knowledgeable Kitties:

We got Rambo from the SPCA almost a year ago. He adjusted very quickly and incredibly well to his new home and is our only pet. A few days after we brought him home, his front left paw got red and sore. A scab-like black crust developed between his toes and around his paw pad, and the skin began to open up and began to smell infected. We took him to the vet, who prescribed antibiotics and a pain reliever and told me to soak it two or three times a day in a solution of antibacterial soap, salt and warm water. When I brought him in for a follow-up a week later, the area between his paw pads looked less sore, but one of his toes had swollen to triple its size. We did the antibiotics and soaking routine again, and he recovered completely. Then his other front paw swelled up, and the soaking routine healed it in about a week.

Now his right rear foot is sore and crusty, and it doesn’t seem to be healing as quickly. His toes are swollen, the skin between his paw pad and toes is starting to open up. The vet says that the next step is a biopsy, and I simply can’t afford it right now. I’ve been told it could be an allergy, but I’m very careful about not using chemical cleaners since I have two toddlers. We use unscented paper pellet litter in his box, and he’s an indoor cat. Rambo is a much-loved member of our family and it worries me sick not knowing what’s wrong with him.

~ Erica

Rambo's inflamed paw

Erica shared this photo of poor Rambo's paw.

Siouxsie: First of all, Erica, thank you for sending along this photo of Rambo’s paw so we can see exactly what you’re talking about.

Thomas: That’s gotta hurt! My toes are sore just lookin’ at that.

Dahlia: We’d heard somewhere along the line about a disease of the paw pads called plasma cell pododermatitis, so we decided to look on Google to find any images of cats with the condition. There were quite a few, ranging from mild to very severe. But this photo taken by the staff of Olathe Animal Hospital in Olathe, Kansas, bears a striking resemblance to the picture of Rambo’s paw.

Siouxsie: The swelling and secretion in this disorder is produced by plasma cells, which are white blood cells that produce a large amount of antibodies.

Thomas: Since white blood cells are the most important and active part of the immune system, many vets believe that stimulation of the immune system plays a part in the onset of the disease.

Dahlia: But as yet, nobody knows what sort of irritant might stimulate the immune system to overreact in this way.

Siouxsie: To our very non-veterinary minds, that sounds a lot like an allergic response, so whoever’s suggested Rambo might have an allergy could be onto something.

Thomas: But what could he be allergic to? Since you’re using non-chemical cleaners, it’s certainly not anything you’re using to wash your floors. But if the non-chemical cleaners you’re using contain essential oils such as tea tree (melaleuca) oil, or oils from any of the evergreen trees (pine, spruce, fir, juniper, etc.), Rambo could be reacting to those. Cats are very sensitive to the phenols in evergreen oils — and pine cleaners like Pine-Sol, for those of you who do use chemical cleaners — as well as to tea tree oil.

Dahlia: Another possibility is that he could be reacting to something he’s eating.

Siouxsie: Yes, believe it or not, cats can develop skin rashes and inflammation from hypersensitivity to their food! Grains tend to be particularly problematic to cats because we’re obligate carnivores: we evolved to eat meat and we don’t have the enzymes in our bodies to efficiently digest grains.

Thomas: We’d recommend that if you’re not doing so already, you feed Rambo a high-quality canned cat food. The better the quality, the fewer preservatives, nasty meat “digests,” antibiotics, artificial colors and other garbage will be in the food.

Dahlia: You can find the high-quality foods we’re talking about in pet stores and through online retailers — but you won’t find them in the supermarket.

Siouxsie: There are grain-free kibble formulas, too, but — well, we’re cats, so we’ll always advocate for gooshy foods or a raw diet because that’s what we like best.

Thomas: Plasma cell pododermatitis is often treated with high doses of steroids in order to suppress the immune system and calm the overreaction. A drug called pentoxifylline is also used to treat the condition.

Dahlia: Only your vet will be able to tell you for sure whether or not Rambo has plasma cell pododermatitis, and she will need to do that biopsy to figure it out.

Siouxsie: But there’s no harm in talking to your vet and asking her if she thinks it could be pododermatitis. If you show her the Olathe Animal Hospital photo and the photo of Rambo’s paw that you sent us, maybe that would help.

Thomas: We’d also suggest that you ask her if she has some idea about what other conditions could be causing Rambo’s paw issues.

Dahlia: It can’t hurt to explain that you can’t afford the biopsy right now and see if there’s something else you can do to help Rambo feel better while you save up for the procedure. Meanwhile, try changing his food and eliminating any melaleuca-based or evergreen-oil-based cleaners you’re using and see if that helps.

  • Marialuz

    Hi guys! I have the same problem with one of my cats, he is a little over a year old. About 7 months ago I saw what resembled a cut on his paw and brought him to the vet and they treated it as a cut, a month later he had another and then 2 at the same time in different paws. The vet said he develops ulcers on his paws and that he had never seen that before. The past 2 weeks he has developed 3 and one of them is taking longer to heal. His blood work came back normal when they did it 3 months ago, this time I am treating it on my own with antibiotics and betadine….i wish could find more info on this. What causes it? I changed diets, from super great food to friskies and nothing. No cleaners, he is strictly indoors…have no idea.

  • http://no Anita M.

    My female calico is 13 yrs old. She’s been on Zeniquin for hi-levels of bacteria in her urine (rods) according to Vet. Dosage is 1.5 tabs of 25 mg tablets daily. I’m not sure if she’s getting better. Dr. recommends if this doesn’t work xrays to check for stones. I think thier trying to gouge me since I don’t have $350. Already spent over 400 for every. Can I have your opinion?
    Thanks Anita

  • Lori

    My cat Sampson had a similar problem on his paws. Turned out he was allergic to plastic. No plastic food bowls, and we had to make sure he couldn’t chew on any plastic or rubber toys, knobs, electrical wires etc…

    Hope your cat is better soon.

  • Steve

    My first thought was, if the infection is limited only to his paws, that is may be the litter you use. sometimes the paper pellets can unfurl and have sharp cutting edges that, although they may not be visible to our naked eye, are microscopic and still able to cut or or at least abraid the soft tissues of the cat’s paw enough to open skin and therefore lead to an infection, particularly as so much of their daily grooming, marking and in some cases even eating can require the use of their paws-its easy to see how a single cut, drug over dirty cat fur, floors(even ‘clean floors’) and other surfaces will drag lots of bacteria into the wound, thus making it likely if not eventual that the paw pads become inflamed or infected. It may be moving around from paw to paw or front paws to back because as they get inflamed, the cat may use his other claws to compensate for the hurt ones. That might explain why its started off in one place but moved around. a neighbor a knew had a similar problem and I told her to try switching to a corn littler, something that doesn’t fluff up as it breaks down. two months later it was like a different cat, more affectionate because he wasn’t in low grade pain from having hurty feet pads. That was 4 years ago now and he is happy as ever and no return of the sore paw pads since then. I know its difficult to switch litters on a new kitty but if it helps calm his paws he may have an easier time adjusting overall.

    • Jessica

      I definitely agree to at least try switching the litter to see if this remedies the paw issues.
      I recently switching my cat from the ‘evil’ clay litter to one that is walnut based. After transitioning her over a month to the new stuff, she almost immediately started chewing at her paws and, when I went to look to see what the problem was, her paws looked just like the one pictured for Rambo.
      Despite all these ‘healthy alternatives’ to traditional litters, most retailers won’t tell you that basic allergies can wreak havoc on pets just like they can on people. I’m in the process of switching her back to her old litter (which is 3 times cheaper and didn’t track *nearly* as much through the house, BTW!) as well as treating her paws with diluted Lavender essential oil (which, among other things, is great for antihistamine and anti-inflammatory qualities). Already seeing an improvement but will obviously monitor her progress.
      After reading the treatment Rambo reacted to, I’m considering adding some paw-soaks to her routine to help speed the healing, too.
      Best wishes out there to all the kitties and their respective owners!

  • Kendra

    I have had this same condition with my persian cat on multiple occasions. He was getting upper respiratory infections every month for the first two years of his life with occasional ulcers on his lips, nose and paws. These recurring conditions are directly linked to the feline herpes virus which is an immune deficiency. I have spent thousands trying to find the “right” treatment. let me just help you out, This is what worked for my cat the best…
    The treatment is an antibiotic/anti-inflammatory ointment (animax) and also broad-spectrum antibiotic cocktail usually clavamox pills, covenia or baytril (you will need a vet prescription) with daily doses of L-lysine which can be purchased at any drug store and cut into swallowable size for the cat. I give my cat 500mg per day every day to keep his immune system strong to avoid the flare-ups but they will occasionally still come back. There is no cure, only management of the symptoms.
    Since putting my cat on the regular lysine supplement, he has only had flare-ups during times of stress (extended family visits or trips around town) which is once every 6 months or so… much better than he was before. hope this helps

    • http://janiswilkins.com janis wilkins

      thank you for this information…Sandy had this condition on his back paw and I didnt notice it until the blood red came through the top between his back paw (he is beige white) … steroid and antibiotic , then condition returned 1 month later. That vet said antibiotic and steroid cancel each other out…so she just soaked it and gave him antibiotic. It went away and now about 3 month later, it is appearing again on both back paws and a tiny redness on his front paw. I am trying corn little (its still sharp I think) and grapefruit seed extract 1 drop with water mixed in food (MANY HAVE EXCLAIMED TO THE BENEFITS TO PEOPLE AND ALL ANIMALS INTERNALLY AND EXTERNALLY) FOR A broad spectrum of issues… I am afraid he will have to go back to the vet. The first one thought it was an immune allergy of sorts bc it was expressing itself in several places… POOR SANDY!

  • Midnght

    My cat, Midnight, developed a swollen paw a couple days after scurring in the grass. She is an indoor cat but occasionally went on the front walkway with me. I origionally thought she had a thorn in her right rear foot. The foot swelled up four times its origional size and seems to bother the cat when she walks. Her vet x-rayed the foot and found nothing inside but swollen tissues. Midnight’s foot first swelled up a year and a half ago. In the last six months, two other feet swelled up twice their size. She also coughs, chokes, and sneezes on a regualr schedule for a year or so. I set up an appointment to have an x-ray of her throat and sinuses. I feel so bad for my cat and hope someone soon can tell me what is really wrong and if there is a cure.

    • Jessica

      Definitely go get a second opinion from a reliable veterinarian.
      Throwing hands in the air after an X-ray doesn’t show anything treatable and saying ‘oh well’ is not proper medicine – Midnight’s doctor should be doing their due diligence to get to the root of the issue BEFORE it reoccurs or spreads to affect another area of the cat’s body.
      Don’t wait for “someone” to ‘soon tell you what is really wrong and if there’s a cure’ because ‘someone’ typically means your average joe and the only thing they should be able to say factually is that they aren’t a vet and can’t diagnose or treat your animal.
      Please go see your vet – best of luck to you and Midnight!

  • loren

    I adopted my cat from a refuge and every two months or so the exact thing would happen to his paws. Finally after two years of vet visits, a vet suggested he may have a food allergy. I put him on a biscuit we have in New Zealand called Feline Z/D which is for cats with food allergies.

    The sores went away and they only come back when I give him some food he’s not used to. Although now he is seven and he has pretty much grown out of his food allergy he is still a sensitive sort of cat in terms of reacting to flea treatments etc.

  • Chiara

    Hi all, my cat also has some sort of dermatitis on his paw so the vet gave me antiseptic wash and some ointment. Jimmy won’t let me put the ointment on and i am supposed to put the cone collar on him too, so he won’t lick it off, but both tasks are proving almost impossible! Any suggestions please? How did you manage to put the cream and avoid them licking it off? I am excluding the cone scenario, I know he won’t have any of that!
    Thanks :)

  • Chanel

    Hello, my cat is going through the same thing right now. In the beginning there was a cut in the middle of her middle paw and her toes and it was swollen and then we took her to the vet and they gave us an antiseptic wash & an ointment. We put the medication on for about a week and she had a cone collar on. After awhile it seemed like it was getting better so we forgot about it… and after 2-3 weeks later, the same paw was got even more swollen and it was pinkish/red below her the bottom of the middle paw. Im really worried right now… Any suggestions??

  • Pat

    My daughter and 2 male cats came to live with us for a while and after a month or so the youngest of the 2 cats started limping., favoring his right front paw. The paw looked like the picture at the beginning of this thread.A trip to the vet and $100.00 later she told me it was a burn of some sort possibly a ceramic cooktop or a disease of the paws. She sent us home with an antibiotics and told us to soak the foot daily for 10 days. The paw got better but not completely healed. We couldn’t afford to go back for further testing so we did some research on our own and found out that it was most likely an allergic response to something. But what.? What I didn’t.factor in was that I have 3 cats of my own. 3 females…. we ruled out food., cleaning supplies., burns., litter. Shes always used the same brand litter as I do. One day after changing the litters.,( we use 2 very large litter trays for all the cats. They share. We scoop feces daily and change completely once a week.)I noticed that the affected cat the litter right after I changed and covered it with his …….right front paw….. and. I knew what he was allergic to…….. something in my cats urine ….. So off we went to the store and bought some hydrocortisone cream an started to apply it daily. Happy to report the paw is completely healed and we still apply it a couple times a week. Hope this is helpful to anyone having a similar situation.!

    • http://paws-and-effect.com/why-are-my-cats-paws-sore-and-swollen/ Bonnie

      How did you keep cat from licking the hydrocortisone cream?

  • cherney

    my cat is allergic to chicken. When he eats it his lips swell up and he looks like someone punched him. So I feed him natures balance salmon and split pea. This is the only food that doesn’t not contain chicken. He has issues with his paws currently his right paw has a sore on it and has for the last four months. I have tried everything. The vet said it was caused by his auto immune disses that orginates in his mouth. I’m not so sure his mouth isn’t flared up after the steroid shot and the antibiotic. But his paw isn’t healing. She said to soak it in epson salt we did and it helped a little we put the salve on it she gave us and we put the soft paws on his claws so he doesn’t claw the furniture. I have never had a cat that is allergic to things. Any suggestions to what I can do for his paw?

  • Laura

    My rescued 8 mo. old kitten Phoenix developed sore, infected paws, just like the photo, but worse. They were horrendous – swollen and hot. After much trial and error and re-infected paws, we narrowed it down to the scent in the litter. I now use a wheat litter that clumps great and smells okay as long as you scoop regularly. I made the mistake of adding some scented Arm & Harmer litter box deodorizer at one point, and his paw flared up again. Some advice on how to treat the infected paw – I have a wonderful alternative vet who uses holistic remedies, as well as Chinese herbs. But you would have to find such a vet.The goal was to bring down the infection and “heat” in his paw and leg. We also treated his paws with an aloe gel with some other soothing stuff added in. It worked great and it didn’t matter if he ingested it because it was good for him on the inside as well. He wasn’t not happy about it, but to keep it on his paws a little longer I applied it just before I put his food down, so he would focus his attention elsewhere. Cats will obsess on an injury or sore, constantly licking. I did use a cone periodically when it was really bad. I also gave him some Rescue Remedy (Bach Flower – get at natural food stores – it is also for people) to relieve some of his obsession. After 3 awful episodes he is all healed up and a happy boy. Hope this helps someone.

  • Jolene

    This looks like eosinophil granuloma. It can occur on the mouth/paws (and more) and is an immune deficiency that is like an over-reactive allergy. Steroid shots are generally given but there often have to be other treatments for secondary infections.

  • Angela Nixon

    I live in Olathe, KS too! My cat’s paws look horrible. We have been treating him for a fungus infection for about a month, which looks to have mostly cleared up, but all of a sudden his paws started to balloon up and bleed. Which lead me to Google to see what it could possibly be before heading to the vet.

  • Lorin Elizabeth

    These suggestions are great! My cat’s paws aren’t red or swollen but in between each claw is BLACK and in the nail bed are crusty and gunky like a real bad infection. My vet doesn’t know what it could be and it’s gonna cost $1000 biopsy…hoping that someone’s seen something similar, any tips are welcome!!