Polydactyl Cats: The Felines With Extra Toes

07/21/2013 11:22 am ET

From Vetstreet:

Regular cats have five toes on their front feet and four on their back, for a total of 18. But polydactyl [pronounced pol-ee-dak-til] cats boast more toes, usually on their front feet.

If the word "polydactyl" sounds like Greek to you, that’s because it is — the Greek root poly means "many" and daktylos means "digits or toes." The record holder for most toes was a kitty named Jake, who had a whopping 28.

American writer Ernest Hemingway was a lover of polydactyl cats. He was given his first polydactyl cat, a white six-toed feline named Snowball, by a ship's captain; today, nearly 50 of Snowball's descendants still live at the Hemingway Home in Key West. Polydactyl cats are known by many names, including “Hemingway cats,” a reference to Snowball and her famous owner. They are also referred to as “mitten cats,” “big-foot cats” and “six-toed cats” — or even “cats with thumbs.”

Interesting Facts

  • The first scientific record of polydactyls is from 1868. They were mostly found in the northwestern United States and Nova Scotia. One theory is that the first mitten kittens were brought to America by English Puritans in the 1600s.
  • President Theodore Roosevelt’s poly kitty Slippers was one of the first cats to purr around the White House.
  • Polydactyl cats often found their way onto boats because sailors believed they were good luck. They were widely recognized as top-notch mousers, and their extra toes were rumored to give them better balance while sailing the high seas.

Common Questions
New York veterinarian Dr. Arnold Plotnick of Manhattan Cat Specialists tells us a little more about polydactyl cats, including his own, Mittens.

Why do some cats have more toes than others?

Some cats have extra toes because they inherit a gene that codes for polydactylism. If one parent is polydactyl and one parent has normal feet, then 40 to 50 percent of the kittens will also be polydactyl.

What is thumb cat polydactyly?

Most polydactyl cats have extra toes that look like the other toes — there are just more of them. Thumb cat polydactyly is a condition where the first digit, or the dewclaw, is so large that it resembles a thumb. My cat, Mittens, has huge “thumbs” on both front feet.

Which cats are more likely to be polydactyl?

Right now, there’s no certain breed of cat that is more or less prone to being polydactyl. However, in the past, the original Maine Coon cats had a high incidence of polydactylism — about 40 percent.

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