Plantigrade vs. Digitigrade Carnivores - the Polar Bear and the African Lion
The foot structure of many animals plays a critical role in their locomotion and environmental niche, and in carnivores, the clear distinction between plantigrade (walking with the podials and metatarsals both flat on the ground) and digitigrade (walking on the toes, with the heel and wrist permanently raised) animals is most evident.
In plantigrade beasts - which include humans, many rodents, bears, racoons, and opossums - the larger surface area that the many bones provide can act as both a stabilizer and a very effective bearer of great weights. In fact, the big ol’ flighted dinosaurs were plantigrade. At the same time, so were the first (and relatively small) mammals, since both of them needed lots of stability in their feet. The weight-bearing ability and stable platform comes at the cost of speed, as the energy and requirements for movement of so many bones and muscles is much greater than digitigrade feet or unguligrade feet.
Digitigrade animals walk on only their toes, leaving their wrists and ankles permanently raised. This affords more speed, much more silent movement. Cats, birds, and dogs are digitigrade. Digitigrade feet evolved long after plantigrade feet, to fit the niche of mid-sized carnivores. However, they cannot effectively sustain large loads, which is why you cannot use a lion as a pack mule. Well, among other reasons. Really, you just don’t want to try using any mid-sized (or large, in the lion’s case) carnivore as a pack mule.
On the Anatomy of Vertebrates. Richard Owen, 1866.