Dog or Cat?

By | April 22, 2013

I get obsessed with details. If we are out somewhere and come across a feather, such as the hairy woodpecker wing secondary feather I found yesterday, you might as well find a comfortable place to sit, because I’m going to stop and read its story. I’ll study the quill to determine whether it was molted or torn out, I’ll scan the rachis (central shaft) and barbs for the stress marks that tell the bird’s feeding pattern and condition, and I’ll assess the vein for sheen, coloration, and wear, to determine the bird’s age, activity level, and place of origin.

I can do the same with a track: how many lobes do the palm pad’s leading and trailing edges have? Are the toe pads teardrop shaped, oval, or elongated? Does the toenail imprint show acceleration, deceleration, or side motion? But not when I’m tracking the animal.

The reason is simple: tracking evolved not as an academic exercise, but to bring home the meat. When I’m on the trail, my goal is to read sign at a glance, so that I can keep moving and find my quarry as quickly as possible. For me, this approach is the ultimate test in tracking. Every animal who hunts by tracking does the same. Senses are keened, adrenaline is pumping, and I’m high on the thrill of the chase. Poring over details can be richly rewarding, yet it doesn’t give me the high of being hot on the trail— I was obviously born to hunt.

Yet when I come across a track that could be either canine or feline, I’m tempted to stop and micro analyze. It’s probably a carryover from my school days, and it’s intellectually satisfying. Yet at the same time there is something deeper, more primal, that urges me on. That’s when my super-processing abilities kick in—I need to know what’s going on, and I need it now. Forget the canine one-two and feline two-three formula for number of palm pad lobes. Forget the shape of the toe pads and whether or not claws are registering (dogs-yes, cats-no). And don’t even mention stride and straddle measurements.

Here’s what I look for:

  • Canine tracks tend to be longer than they are wide, and feline tracks are usually wider than long.
  • Canines walk more up on their toes than felines, who like to be down on their palm pads. You can often feel the difference in the energy a track projects.
  • Canines have small palm pads and large toes, and felines have the reverse.
  • Canine tracks are usually longer than wide, while feline tracks are wider than long.
  • Canines’ toes are typically bunched together, with the short outer toes tucked partially behind the dominant middle ones. Felines’ are spread in a semi-circle that wraps about 40% of the way around the palm pad.
  • Canine’s two center toes are the same length, where with felines, one center toe (the inner one) will project forward.

All of the above clues can be picked up at a glance, and they can be as definitive as a detailed analysis, especially with low-resolution tracks.

One final suggestion: read the front paw print rather than the rear. In both families, the front paws are larger, more articulate, and show more personality, than the rears.

And now for a quiz. Assuming that everything in the natural realm has evolved for a reason, why do felines have palm pad-dominant paws and canines have toe-dominant paws?


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