Are Your Cat's Feet Producing an Unusual Odor?

"Frito feet," usually observed (and smelled) in dogs, can also affect cats, but it's a bit different.

If you spend time in online cat forums, you may have encountered fellow cat owners talking about intriguing scents associated with their feline friends. In my wanderings through these forums, one such occasional conversation regards smells associated with a cat’s feet. In dogs, the phenomenon is called “Frito feet.” Since cat owners have had similar experiences, it led us to wonder whether these strange odors have similar causes. What our research turned up was not encouraging.

Paws cat close-up by Shutterstock. ‘>

Paws cat close-up by Shutterstock.

Frito feet is rarely observed in cats. Even cat owners do not agree on the problem having a single identifiable scent. Depending on who is making the claim, these cats’ feet may reek of snack foods ranging from corn chips, popcorn, and cheese, to digestive biscuits or fragrant rice. Others go further afield, saying that their cats’ feet smell like wet dogs or unwashed socks. One even said their cat’s feet bore the scent of “low tide.” The reasons are as difficult to pinpoint as consensus on the scent itself.

What causes Frito feet?

While dog owners aver that they enjoy or even delight in the scent of Fritos or corn chips that emanate from feet and paw pads of their canine companions, these scents are neither normal nor naturally occurring. Having a greater frequency in dogs, it’s been identified as a result of fungal and bacterial growth between their toes. Yeast and other fungi thrive when heat and moisture are prevalent, so the Frito feet phenomenon tends to be noticed more in summer and in other humid conditions.

Cat feet by Shutterstock. ‘>

Cat feet by Shutterstock.

This does not rule out odors during the winter. If you are running your heater or radiator at full blast during the coldest months of the year and your cat’s feet happen to be hosting such fungal microorganisms, you may be inadvertently encouraging foot odor in your pets. When yeast and other fungi proliferate, they also foster further bacterial growth, a set of circumstances that can certainly produce unusual odors.

Cats are not natural odor producers

Cat kneading is, of course, a perfectly common and natural occurrence. It is well known that the paw pads on cat feet contain scent glands, and that one reason for kneading is territorial marking. These glands produce scents that are detectable by other cats, and should not yield odors that cat owners can easily smell. Both Catster’s own resident veterinarian and others who have written about cat odors have clearly stated that cats are not natural odor producers.

Cat’s paws by Shutterstock. “>

Cat’s paws by Shutterstock. “>

Cat’s paws by Shutterstock.

As such, a generally healthy cat should not yield any particularly strong smell, neither from her feet nor anywhere else. Veterinarians seem to agree that if there is a strong smell coming from your cat’s feet, it betokens some medical problem or issue. Most of the time, these smells — of Fritos, cheese, popcorn, or otherwise — come to a cat’s feet by way of the tongue through the process of regular grooming.

But my cat’s feet smell weird!

Even if your cat is purely an indoor cat, you may be a cat owner detecting unusual odors coming from your cat’s feet. In the same way that early gothic novels — and every episode of Scooby-Doo — showed that the nastiest ghosts and apparitions had ultimately logical, even prosaic explanations, so it is with cats and Frito feet. These smells may be the result of injury, diet, or other environmental factors.

Domestic cat licking paw in outdoor by Shutterstock. ‘>

Domestic cat licking paw in outdoor by Shutterstock.

While yeast and other fungi are typically the source of these smells in dogs, these infestations are extremely rare in cats. One scenario in which fungi and bacteria can yield foot odor in cats is when they take root in an abrasion or other wound in or around a cat’s foot. If your cat has an unusual amount of hair between her toes, it can hide very small infected wounds. Injury is perhaps the simplest explanation for Frito feet in cats.

My cat has no foot injury!

If your cat’s feet are clean and uninjured, the most likely explanation, stated above, is that self-grooming has distributed a scent from another affected area to the cat’s feet. Try to locate the originatory source of the unusual scent. The mouth, ears, groin, and anus are the most obvious places to begin your odor hunt. In older cats, or those with poor oral health, bacteria in the mouth is a major odor producer, and this can easily be licked onto feet and other body parts.

Cat sleeping on a couch by Shutterstock.’>

Cat sleeping on a couch by Shutterstock.

After oral or dental causes, impacted anal glands are another potential distributable odor source. If your cat is obese or arthritic and is having trouble grooming her nether regions, treading in an irregularly cleaned litter box could be another source of foul-smelling feet. If, upon closer sniffing, you find a stronger matching odor, your next step should be a visit to the veterinarian to have the root problem diagnosed and treated.

Does your cat have Frito feet?

Strong odors are more frequently observed in dogs than in cats, so if your cat’s feet, or any other part of her body, are producing a pungent odor, then it is very likely that there is a health problem. Regardless whether that odor evokes pleasant olfactory sensations you associate with a delicious snack treat, you should seek out the true cause.

Do your cat’s feet have a smell that you can’t quite place? What do you think it smells like? Discuss your experiences with feline Frito feet below!

Learn more about cat feet with Catster:

About the author: Melvin Peña trained as a scholar and teacher of 18th-century British literature before turning his research and writing skills to puppies and kittens. He enjoys making art, hiking, and concert-going, as well as dazzling crowds with operatic karaoke performances. He has a 16-year-old cat named Quacko, and his online life is conveniently encapsulated here.

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