Polydactyl cats are relatively common and becoming more so, thanks to a dominant yet harmless genetic mutation that many cat lovers find appealing.
We used to have a polydactyl cat named Flurrie who had six toes on each front foot. It almost looked as though he had thumbs, and when he was a kitten, they made his feet seem comically big for the rest of his body, as if he was wearing boxing gloves or over-sized mitts. The extra toes never hindered him in any way, and in our eyes, they made him unique.
Polydactyl comes from the Greek words poly (“many”) and daktylos (“digits”). At the time, we thought Polydactyl cats were rare, but it turns out cats with more than the normal number of toes are relatively common. Polydactylism is a congenital anomaly, a genetic mutation that causes a cat to be born with six to eight toes on two or (more rarely) all four paws. It most often arises on the front paws. Because it’s a dominant gene and an inherited trait, the number of polydactyl cats seems to be growing, with the largest populations found along the east coast of North America and in the southwest UK.
No one knows for sure where or how this genetic mutation arose, although it isn’t anything new. Polydactyl cats were reputedly popular with ship’s captains for their superior hunting abilities, enabling them to better control onboard rat populations. This may help explain their proliferation along the east coast, and why Maine coons (a breed also thought to have been brought to the US on ships) often carry the trait.
Writer and cat lover Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Key West, Florida, may also have contributed to the increase of these felines in North America when he acquired a polydactyl cat, also possibly a Maine coon, from a captain. Hemingway subsequently collected more polydactyls, some of which had descendants, and today dozens of extra-toed kitties live at the Hemingway home, which is now a museum. Because of this, polydactyl cats are often called Hemingway cats, although they have many other affectionate monikers, including mitten cats, thumb cats and boxing cats.
Polydactylism on its own isn’t dangerous and doesn’t harm the cats. If anything, it just makes them cuter! However, if you have a cat with extra toes, it’s a good idea to clip his claws regularly, and check to make sure none of them are becoming ingrown. If you have problems clipping the claws on the extra toes, ask your veterinarian to do it. You might also want to make sure the treat cupboard is locked – these kitties can be especially dexterous!
Ann Brightman is Managing Editor for Animal Wellness Magazine and Integrative Veterinary Care Journal. A lifelong animal lover, she has also been a writer and editor for over 25 years. Ann is a member of the Professional Writers Association of Canada and is also a Tai Chi instructor.