Animal leg anatomy cheat sheet

We've spoken before about that oh-so common artist's mistake of believing that some animals have "backwards knees." But in that original post, we only discussed "digitigrades." Digitigrades are animals that walk on their toes, with the "sole" of their feet off the ground, like cats and dogs -- this leads to the common myth that they have "backwards knees," as their ankles are easily mistaken for knees by humans who don't walk on their toes all of the time!

A drawing of a dog's back leg bones, demonstrating that what people commonly mistake for the knee is actually the ankle.

Diagram of a dog's back leg

But take care, not all four legged animals are digitigrade. Today, we'll look deeper into this topic and explore some other animal leg styles.  

A drawing of a monkey's skeleton, demonstrating the positioning of the knee and ankle joints.

A diagram of a monkey

Plantigrades are animals that walk on the soles of their feet. The animal in this category that you know best are humans, but bears, mice, raccoons, weasels, and monkeys are also plantigrades. It's typically much easier for artists breaking into drawing animals to learn to draw plantigrade critters, because their back legs are configured in a familiar way; unless, of course, they've been told about digitigrades! Then some artists will attempt to apply that knowledge even to plantigrade animals, leading to some unintentional tip-toeing bear drawings.  

A drawing of a horse's skeleton, demonstrating the positioning of the knee and ankle joints.

A diagram of a horse

Horses, donkeys, pigs, gazelles and most other animals with hooves are ungulates. Ungulates are animals that walk on their nails (hooves are just big nails!) rather than their toes. Picture these critters as the en pointe ballerinas of the animal kingdom.  

A drawing of a bird's skeleton, demonstrating the positioning of the knee and ankle joints.

A diagram of a bird

Birds are among the most difficult to recognize anatomically, as their upper legs are actually inside of their body, hiding some of the points you'd normally recognize in a leg. However, most birds are digitigrades, and again, what most people assume is a backward knee is actually their ankle!

A drawing of an ostrich's skeleton, demonstrating the positioning of the knee and ankle joints.

Diagram of an ostrich

Comments on "Animal leg anatomy cheat sheet"


Thanks for this its really helpful :)

Kim - Site admin

So glad to hear that! :)

Laura (unregistered visitor)

Oh my gosh, This was eye-opening. Thank you!

Olivier Renken (unregistered visitor)

So informative! Epic.


This is really great content. Thanks :)

Kim - Site admin

So glad you approve! :)

Shai (unregistered visitor)

Wow... finally understood my animals' anatomy!

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Fascinating. Your site was recommended by YouTuber, Brad Colbow. Don’t know who he is but I’m glad I followed through. I especially enjoyed the information on bird leg anatomy since they are one of my favorite subjects. Looking forward to the benefits of full membership.

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