Muscles On A Cat: System & Anatomy

Cats have more bones than humans but fewer muscles. So why are cats so much more flexible than us? Discover the basics of cat muscle anatomy and learn how to feed your cat's muscles.

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Last Updated: October 31, 2023 | 8 min read

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Are you curious about the muscles of a cat? A cat’s musculoskeletal system is not so different from a human’s. Cats have more bones than humans (230 vs. the human 206) but fewer muscles (517 muscles vs. the human 650+). A cat’s skeleton serves as the framework for the muscular system, allowing for movement.

While cats share the same types of muscles as all mammals, what they can do with those muscles is drastically different. Their musculoskeletal system allows cats to be extraordinarily bendy and fast. As a pet owner, knowing how to care for those muscles is especially important for your cat’s continued mobility and overall well-being.

We explain the basics of cat muscle anatomy and share interesting facts about cats’ muscles. Also, learn about common muscle disorders and injuries for cats and how to properly feed your cat’s muscles.

Types Of Muscles

Like all mammals, felines have three types of muscles: striated, cardiac, and smooth. 

  1. Striated, or skeletal, muscles are the largest group of muscles and are responsible for voluntary movement. These muscles attach to bone and help felines walk, run, look around, and even breathe. Striated muscles get their name for their appearance under a microscope. These muscles appear to have small stripes or striations when seen up close. Striated muscles are found in the head, chest, back, and legs.
  2. Cardiac muscles are a specialized type of striated muscle. These muscles are found only in the heart and are responsible for the contractions that move blood through the body. There is no conscious control over cardiac muscle. 
  3. As their name suggests, smooth muscles are without striations and appear “smooth” under a microscope. These are organ muscles that move without our control. Smooth muscles are found in the wall of the digestive tract and contract to move food through the intestines. They are also found in the walls of the reproductive and urinary tracts. They are in the walls of the eyes, bronchioles, and arteries.

Cat Skeletal Muscles

Skeletal muscles are found throughout the body and are responsible for posture and movement. These muscles connect to bone or cartilage via connective tissue called ligaments and tendons. Skeletal muscles either extend or flex the joint (making the angle of the joint smaller). 

There are hundreds of skeletal muscles within the cat. Here are some of the major muscles:

Head And Neck Muscles

  • Auricular muscles pull the ears forward and back, allowing for lateral rotation
  • Temporalis closes the jaw
  • Masseter closes the jaw and aids in chewing
  • Levator nasolabialis raises the upper lip, pulling it aside. It also helps with nostril dilatation.
  • Buccinator forms part of the cheek and aids in movement of food in the mouth.
  • Brachiocephalic starts on the head and extends to the shoulder. It helps to extend the shoulder

Back Muscles

  • Trapezius muscles move and stabilize the scapula, moving the head and shoulders
  • Latissimus dorsi flexes the shoulder
  • Thoracolumbar fascia anchors a number of back and abdominal muscles

Chest Muscles

  • Intercostal muscles connect the ribs to one another and aid breathing
  • External abdominal oblique forms part of the abdominal wall
  • Rectus abdominus starts at the sternum and inserts on the pelvis, offering ventral support for the abdomen
  • Sarcocaudalis muscle moves the tail

Forelimb Muscles

  • Brachlocephalicus helps extend the shoulder
  • Infrapinatus supports the shoulder joint
  • Deltoids flex the shoulder
  • Brachialis flexes the elbow
  • Triceps extend the elbow
  • Digital flexors and digital extensors control the toes

Leg Muscles

  • Gluteus maximus is the major muscle of the rump
  • Biceps femoris flexes the stifle (knee)
  • Tensor fascia latae helps flex the hip
  • Semitendinosus is the rearmost muscle of the thigh
  • Gastrocnemius flexes the stifle and extends the hock joint
  • Common and lateral digital extensors extend the toes

There are two muscles that are not found in humans: the xiphihumeralis muscle and the pectoantebrachialis muscle. Both are pectoral muscles assisting with shoulder movement.

5 Cool Facts About Cat Muscles

1. Cats Have 32 Muscles That Control The Outer Ear

Humans have six muscles found in the outer ear. Cats have 32. These muscles allow cats extreme ear mobility, allowing them to rotate their ears a full 180 degrees. A cat’s ears allow them to express themself—we know flat ears mean “stay away”! Their muscle anatomy also allows them to point their ears towards far-away sounds to hear more clearly.

2. Cats Can Rotate Their Spines 180 Degrees

A cat’s spine has 30 vertebrae—48 to 53 if you include the tail. This is part of what gives cats their impressive flexibility. Cats can rotate their spines to the right or left up to 180 degrees (vs. the 90 degrees for humans). This rotation allows falling cats to turn themselves and land on their feet. 

3. Cats Can Fit In Very Tight Spaces

Have you seen your cat squeeze through an unbelievably small space and wonder how it’s possible? A cat can flow like liquid through small gaps thanks to their shoulder girdle. In humans, the shoulder girdle is composed of the shoulder blades and collarbones. These bones are connected, resulting in rigid support for the arm muscles. In contrast, the shoulder blades and collarbones of a cat are attached to the rest of the body only by muscles—not bone. This, combined with the small size of a feline’s collarbones, allows cats to squeeze through tight openings.

4. A Cat’s Heart Beats Twice As Fast As A Humans

The average heart rate for a cat at rest is between 140 to 220 beats per minute, compared to a human’s, which is 60 to 100 beats per minute. Smaller animals use and distribute energy much quicker (think about how many more blood vessels an elephant has than a mouse). To maintain homeostasis—a state of balance in the body—their heart beats faster.

5. Cats Have 27 Facial Expressions

The Cat Facial Action Coding System (CatFACS) describes 27 unique facial movements associated with the ears, eyes, nose, mouth, and whiskers. If we learn to interpret these expressions, we can better care for our furry friends. Think you have what it takes to determine when a cat is excited, happy, fearful, or in pain? Take the Cat Faces Quiz, created by researchers at the University of Guelph. 

A Note On Declawing

Many owners rush into declawing their kitty without fully understanding the consequences. Declawing, also known as onychectomy, surgically removes a feline’s claws by amputating the end bones of the animal’s toes. The human equivalent would be having the top joint of all your fingers removed. After the joints of the cat’s toes are amputated, a cat will feel pain upon waking and for many weeks afterward.

There are many arguments for avoiding declawing your cat: your feline is almost defenseless if left outside, and some experts argue that cats are more inclined to become bitters after being declawed. Some cats even cats show personality changes. A once good-natured cat might become aggressive or withdrawn.

Concerning mobility, declawing changes how a cat’s feet hit the ground. It can affect a cat’s balance and climbing abilities, and if the surgery was improperly performed, one or more nails could grow back in an uncomfortable way. Declawed kitties can experience pain long after they have healed from surgery (think phantom limb pain). Declawed felines may have mobility issues, leading to inappropriate toileting and arthritis. Muscle pain is a primary symptom of arthritis-related diseases, of which there are over 100. Cats in pain also experience weakened muscles due to lack of use.

A 2018 study of 274 cats (137 declawed and 137 non-declawed) found that “declawing cats increases the risk of unwanted behaviors and may increase the risk for developing back pain.” The study found that a declawed cat was three times more likely to develop back pain than a non-declawed cat.

Cat Muscle Injuries

Vigorous play, fights with other animals, falls, or sudden movements could damage soft tissue, affecting the muscles, tendons, and ligaments. Sprains and strains are painful and may require veterinary attention to assess the severity of the injury.

If you notice any of the following symptoms, schedule an appointment with your veterinarian:

  • Changes in behavior, such as aggression or fearfulness
  •  Difficulty moving
  •  Limping
  •  Reluctance to be picked up or touched
  •  Swelling or bruising
  •  Unusual lethargy or quietness
  •  Unusual posture

Your vet will thoroughly examine the feline for signs of injury, including bruising or swelling. They will also gently feel the cat’s body to identify swelling, pain, or abnormal movement areas. Your vet may also perform diagnostic imaging, like X-rays, an ultrasound, MRI, or CT scans.

Treating Cat Muscle Injuries

When treating soft tissue damage, you want to provide options for pain management. Your doctor may prescribe medical for pain relief and inflammation reduction. You can also give your cat analgesic supplements, such as CBD, which may help relieve pain and inflammation.

Gentle movement will also be essential to promote healing and maintain range of motion. Ask your vet about rehabilitation or physical therapy options for severe soft tissue injuries.

Cat Muscle Disorders 

Like any other part of the body, your feline may experience disorders related to muscle function.

Here are some of the most-common health problems that affect the muscular system:

  • Congenital muscle disorders: inherited diseases affecting the skeletal muscles.
  • Feline polymyopathy: an illness caused by low potassium levels within the body.
  • Feline polymyositis: immune-mediated inflammation of muscles throughout the body.
  • Myositis: inflammation of the muscles caused by infections.
  • Neoplasia: cancer lesions of muscles.

If you’re worried your cat has a muscle disorder, the best thing you can do is contact your veterinarian. They will run diagnostic tests, such as a muscle biopsy or X-ray, to determine the problem.

Feeding Your Cat’s Muscles

Cats are obligate carnivores that rely on animal protein to survive. The nutrients in meat are more bioavailable to cats, and without it, your cat would be malnourished and unhealthy.

Purchasing high-quality cat food that includes meat from various sources will help your feline thrive. Your cat’s diet should be rich in:

  • Amino acids: Amino acids are the building block of protein. They offer a wide range of benefits to cats. Essential amino acids for cats are taurine, arginine, histidine, isoleucine, leucine, lysine, methionine, methionine-cystine, phenylalanine, phenylalanine-tyrosine, threonine, tryptophan, and valine.
  •  Protein: Protein is a source of energy for our feline friends. It also supports muscle development.
  •  Fatty acids: Fatty acids are the building blocks of fats. Critical fatty acids for cats include arachidonic acid (AA), Eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA). Fatty acids also offer various health benefits. For example, EPA supports the joints, reduces inflammation, and lubricates the eyes.
  •  Fats: Fats provide energy, insulate the body, improve nutrient absorption, and help make hormones.
  •  Vitamins: Vitamins are organic substances needed for normal cell growth, function, and development. There are 13 essential vitamins: A, D, E, K, choline, and the B vitamins.
  •  Minerals: Minerals are naturally occurring elements or compounds that support the body’s development and function. There are hundreds of minerals classified as either major or trace minerals. Essential minerals for cats include calcium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chloride, magnesium, iron, copper, manganese, zinc, iodine, and selenium.
  •  Water: Water is crucial for all bodily metabolic functions, including muscle function.

Frequently Asked Questions

Why Are Cats So Flexible?

The extra vertebrae in the cat’s spine and the elastic cushioning disks between them make felines incredibly flexible. The elasticity of the spine also allows cats to sprint at high speeds. At full stride, a cat may be up to three times their regular body length, allowing for speeds of around 30 miles per hour. In addition, a cat’s shoulder blades attach only with muscle, and their collar bones are tiny and mobile.

Do Cats Have Muscles In Their Tails?

Yes, your cat has muscles in their tail. There are six muscles on both sides of the tail that work together to support the tail’s vertebrae, ligaments, and tendons to allow movement.

Do Cats Have Control Of Their Tails?

Healthy cats can control their tails from the base to the tip. Moving their tails is an integral part of balance and self-expression. Some tail movements are involuntary. Like humans, a cat’s tail may involuntarily move during deep sleep, as a reflex, or after an injury.

Final Thoughts

Are you curious about other ways to support the muscles of a cat? We review some of our favorite quality cat foods, including Open Farm, Smalls, and Acana. You can also get your cat moving with our top picks for exercise wheels and cat steps for your walls.

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