Intriguing Facts About Polydactyl Cats
What Is a Polydactyl Cat?
Polydactyl cats, with their catcher’s mitt-sized paws, look as if they’re ready for a Major League Baseball game—although they might be all thumbs.
Meaning “many fingers” in Greek, the term polydactyl (pronounced pah-lee-DAK-til) refers to a cat with extra toes. Polydactyly is a condition, not a breed. Most domestic felines have five toes on each of their front paws and four toes on each of their hind paws, for a total of 18 toes.
Polydactyl kitties, however, typically have one or two extra toes on their front paws, and occasionally, several extras on their rear paws. The number of extra toes on one front paw can even differ from the number on the other front paw. Sometimes the extra toes are merely auxiliary, non-functional appendages. Polydactyly is not painful or uncomfortable, and these oversized paws don’t get in a cat’s way.
“Double paws” is a condition that is sometimes mistaken as polydactyly. Rather than having multiple toes, these cats actually have a full or partial paw attached to two paws or all four.
What Cat Had the Most Toes?
The record holders for the most toes were a male ginger Canadian cat named Jake, who boasted a colossal 28 toes (seven on each foot, with its own claw, bone structure, and pad) and Paws, an American polydactyl who also had 28 tootsies. Both are recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as having more toes than any other cat.
Jake the Cat
Where Did Polydactyls Originate?
The first scientific record of polydactyls dates back to 1868. These mitten kittens were mostly located in the Northeastern United States and Europe. It’s theorized that multi-toed cats originated and propagated aboard trade ships sailing between Europe and Boston. Because of this back-and-forth travel, polydactyls initially inhabited port cities.
Sailors valued polydactyls because the cats’ large paws helped them balance on ships crossing rough seas and made them better mousers. Since mice were thought to be Black Plague carriers, cats were instrumental in keeping rodent populations in check.
Seamen believed that cats brought good luck as protectors who safeguarded their ships from wrecking, disease, and sinking. And they were loving companions to lonely sailors on long journeys.
A polydactyl cat’s extra toes are produced by a dominant mutant gene (Pd). This means that if one parent sports extra toes, it’s quite possible that 40 percent to 50 percent of their kittens will, as well. If both parents possess extra toes, odds escalate that they'll produce polydactyl offspring. Polydactyly is not specific to gender and is an aberration, not a deformity.
The polydactyl trait is sometimes present in creatures besides cats, including lions, panthers, dogs, mice, guinea pigs, amphibians, reptiles, and even humans. Although all breeds of felines can possess extra toes, this characteristic is especially prevalent in Maine Coon cats—in approximately 40 percent of them.
Polydactyly is typically limited to the front paws. It's rare for a polydactyl cat to only have extra toes on its hind paws, and even more rare for it to have extra toes on all four of its paws.
Taking Care of a Polydactyl Cat
Usually, cats file their nails by scratching. A polydactyl cat, however, may have awkwardly positioned claws that can't be filed down naturally. This can lead to kitty snagging her claws on furniture and carpeting, causing damage to her paws, as well as your possessions. If claws are left untrimmed, they can grow into the paw pad, resulting in pain and possibly an infection.
If you own a polydactyl cat, trim her claws regularly and examine her paw pads for ingrown claws, ripped toes, infections, and growth troubles pertaining to the extra toes. Besides habitual nail trimmings, polydactyl cats do not require special care, and their extra toes are not considered to be a handicap.
Are Polydactyl Cats a Separate Breed?
Polydactyl felines are not a separate breed. Extra toes can be found on cats of all colors, coat patterns, and hair lengths. Maine Coon cats (large, long-haired cats that resemble lions) are considered to be the first multi-toed breed. The northern interior of Maine is buried under 100 feet of snow annually, so the breed may have developed “snowshoe” paws to navigate it.
Unsuccessful attempts had been made to qualify polydactyl Maine Coon cats as a separate breed—currently, the standards for all breeds recognized by the Cat Fanciers’ Association (CFA) disqualify a pedigreed kitty that has extra toes.
Why Are Polydactyl Cats Called “Hemingway Cats?”
American Nobel Prize-winning author, Ernest Hemingway, fell in love with polydactyl cats when he was given his first multi-digit kitty—a white, six-toed feline named Snow White—by ship captain, Stanley Dexter. From there, his menagerie grew exponentially, and he wrote, “One cat just leads to another.” The public became aware of polydactyls because of Hemingway’s unabashed love for them.
Upon Hemingway’s death in 1961, his former Key West, Florida, home was transformed into a museum, as well as housing for a colony of some 60 of Snow White’s descendants (about half are polydactyl), where they are fed and meticulously cared for by staff. This iconic novelist’s cats are legally protected as an historical treasure. Due to Hemingway’s adoration of these special, extra-toed creatures, they are also known by the moniker “Hemingway cats.”
Theodore Roosevelt was another famous person with a soft spot for polydactyls. He had a six-toed poly named Slippers, who was one of the first feline White House residents.
Other Names for Polydactyl Cats
Although “Hemingway cat” is the most commonplace, non-scientific name for poly cats, they have also been referred to as “mitten cats,” “thumb cats,” “boxing cats,” “big-foot cats,” “snowshoe paws,” and “double-pawed cats.” They have also been called Cardi-cats, after Southwestern England's Cardigan District, where a considerable number of polydactyl cats roam.
Contrary to most mutations, extra toes don't hinder a cat and can actually be considered an advantage. Some polydactyl felines have an extra digit on the side of their front paws, which acts like an opposable human thumb.
It’s been said that these kitties can use their paws to perform amazing stunts, such as picking things up, opening latches and windows, and even opening cabinet doors. You should probably closely guard your wallet—and any other valuables—while you’re around these clever cats.
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