Most cats have 18 toes—5 in each front paw and 4 in each rear. However, polydactyl cats may have up to 28 toes! Polydactyly comes from the Greek words poly and daktulos meaning many fingers. In most cases, this natural genetic mutation is harmless, a polydactyl cat's personality is unaffected and some even believe polydactyl cats are lucky. Including Hemingway!
What is a Polydactyl Cat?
Polydactylism is a dominant trait unrelated to gender. A cat only needs one copy of this gene from either parent, and it typically affects the front paws. It is rare for the rear paws to have extra toes.
But if the cat does have extra toes on the back paws, he will also have extra toes in the front. Breeding two polydactyl cats does not guarantee that all offspring will also be polydactyl cats.
Typically, however, if one parent is polydactyl, 40-50% of the kittens will be too. The configuration in the kitten's toes will vary because polydactylism genes show "incomplete dominance".
In most cases, polydactylism is harmless and a polydactyl cats behaviour is completely normal. However, there is a gene that may cause a defect such as missing or abnormal bones. You may notice a twisty mutation that could potentially cause hypoplasia or agenesis. The most common cases of polydactyl cats will appear to have "mittens" or extra-large thumbs.
Polydactyl cats are very special to me. My family is owned by one such cat, Gracie. Gracie is a white and grey tuxedo polydactyl cat that has an extra thumb appearing as a kitten mitten. Thankfully, she is not disabled and can walk around normally.
Gracie had a litter of kittens before we adopted her, and I often wonder how many of those kittens had extra toes. Her behaviour is the same as any other cat. She is shy and timid at first and takes some warming up.
Quick Facts About Polydactyl Cats
1. Polydactyly Is a Genetic Mutation
Polydactyly is indeed a genetic mutation. It is a simple autosomal dominant trait. Cats with extra toes carry the dominant gene. If one parent has polydactylism, some kittens will inherit extra toes too.
However, kittens will not inherit the same genetic configuration as their parents because polydactylism shows incomplete dominance. That means the genes from the normal-toed parents affect the offspring as well. So the configuration of the kittens' toes will vary.
Many polydactyl cats carry the gene for normal toes so this trait is never fixed. There will always be normal-toed kittens because of the recessive gene.
Polydactylism typically affects the front paws only. It is extremely rare for a polydactyl cat to have extra toes on his hind legs and normal toes on his front. Typically, the cat will have extra toes on all feet or only the front. Some cats may even have a different number of toes on each foot!
The polydactylism gene may give extra toes or extra dewclaws. There is a lot of variation, but the most common is an extra thumb.
2. The Condition Is Usually Harmless
Polydactylism is usually harmless. The most common polydactyly have well-formed extra toes. Other cats may have an enlargement that looks like an extra thumb. These types of polydactyly are harmless.
There are a few polydactyl cat health issues to be aware of though.
The polydactyl gene that causes missing or abnormal bones results in a potentially disabling deformity. You may notice a twisty mutation or a thumb with an extra joint. This genetic defect may cause radial hypoplasia or agenesis.
Radial hypoplasia is an underdevelopment and agenesis is an absence of the radius, one of the long bones in the forearm. These cats cannot move around normally and may hop on their hind legs or walk on their front elbows to find balance. X-rays are needed to differentiate between the normal polydactyl and radial hypoplasia.
Unfortunately, these cats are being bred intentionally for the extra toes. Cats with these three-boned thumbs carry the gene that could put their kittens at risk for hypoplasia and agenesis. It is recommended, instead, to adopt, and you can search by area on RescueMe.org.
3. Some Polydactyl Cats Have 'Mittens'
Polydactyl cats may appear to have mittens due to the extra thumbs. This is the most common form of polydactyly. Typically, polydactyl cats have one or two extra toes on each front foot.
The extra toes appear on the thumb side of the foot earning the nickname "mitten cats". These cats appear to have extra fingers that protrude out from the other toes.
Some polydactyl cat parents are amazed that their "mitten kitten" has learned to use the extra thumbs. The extra thumbs may not be completely opposable, but cats are very clever. Some cats may learn to control their extra digits enough to open cabinets, latches, and windows.
Cats use their paws and claws to capture prey so it makes sense that they may get "handy" if the opportunity arises. One of my client's very large ginger tabby polydactyl cat was able to open his lever door handle and escaped into the hallway multiple times!
4. Polydactyl Cats Without 'Mittens' Appear to Simply Have Large Feet
Polydactyl cats without mittens have extra toes but they do not protrude out as much. These cats appear to simply have large feet.
You may notice a wider foot with these polydactyly. Their toes are more connected and closer together when compared to cats with mittens.
5. Extra Toes May Not Be an Asset for a Cat
Some believe that polydactyl cats carry advantage by having extra toes. However, veterinarians often state that polydactylism offers no advantages or disadvantages.
In the past, sailors believed that the extra toes offered a better balance to the cats in stormy waters. The sailors also considered the cats to be better hunters. Apparently, there are fewer polydactyl cats in Europe because many of them were destroyed due to witchcraft superstitions.
Some believe that the Maine Coon polydactyl developed a snowshoe foot. And, they say, the extra toes helped the cats walk in the snow and catch live fish. But, again, veterinarians say there is no evidence that polydactylism offers any advantages.
You may be worried that the extra toes will catch on furniture while scratching, but this is rare. It is important, however, to trim all claws regularly. Most polydactyl cats have normal toenails.
But, in some cases, the extra toe is incompletely formed. This may lead to claw problems such as ingrown or overgrown claws. In most cases, there are no disadvantages, otherwise, polydactyl cats would have died out long ago.
6. Polydactyl Cats Are More Common in Certain Parts of the World
Polydactyl cats are more common in certain parts of the world. You'll likely find these extra-toed cats in the US and the UK.
The most common areas are along the East Coast of the US and South West of England and Wales. In the past, these cats traveled with sailors back and forth from Britain and the US.
English Puritans may have traveled with polydactyl cats on their ships to Boston. Other common areas of travel include Yarmouth, Massachusetts and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Additionally, polydactyl cats are known as "ship's cats" in Norway.
As mentioned above, polydactyl cats in Europe were often hunted and killed due to superstitions.
7. Sailors Believed Many-Toed Cats Were Good Luck
Domesticated cats became domesticated because of their abilities to keep mice at bay. Cats help to save food and supplies from foraging mice, and cats get a nice meal—it's a win-win!
Sailors favored polydactyl cats because they believed that they were excellent mousers. This hunting was helpful to sailors during travel as rodent protection.
They also believed that the extra toes helped cats balance better among choppy waters and stormy weather. Sailors considered these cats lucky mascots, and the Maine Coon breed polydactyl cats were especially treasured.
These large working cats came in handy during cold months because they are built to withstand harsh weather. Polydactyl cats were new and different so sailors also enjoyed sharing these cats with their families. This created a very special bond, and these "different" cats were lovingly accepted.
8. There Are Some Breeds of Polydactyl Cats
Some cat fancier clubs recognize two types of polydactyl cat breeds: the American Polydactyl and the Maine Coon Polydactyl. Although, these breeds are not officially recognized. In the past, Maine Coon cats were intentionally bred to get rid of this genetic trait.
The American Polydactyl cat can be found across all different breeds. My family has a grey and white tuxedo polydactyl cat. She has a mitten and, thankfully, no disabilities.
While polydactyl cats are most known with Maine Coons, these extra-toed cats can occur regardless of coat color and breed. I've known tabbies, tuxedos, calicos, and black cats with extra toes.
Polydactyl cats come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. Their average weight range depending on the actual breed. For example, Maine Coon cats are a much larger breed. As with any cat, you'll have all sorts of personalities, and they are not specific to polydactylism.
9. About 40 Percent of Maine Coon Cats Once Had Extra Toes
Historically speaking, the original unregistered Maine Coon cats were around 40% polydactyl. Breed standards required a normal toe configuration so this mutation was intentionally bred out of Maine Coons.
However, in the Netherlands and Belgium, they are working to restore the polydactyl form of the breed.
The present-day polydactyl Maine Coon cats are a direct visible genetic link to a heritage family going back 300 years or more. Maine Coons are treasured as working cats perfect for the environment of Maine. Boston Harbor is designated as the arrival point of the polydactyl cat in the US.
Polydactyl cats were joyfully accepted and roamed free among Maine Coons. Inevitably, these cats bred, and the polydactyl gene was introduced to the Maine Coon breed.
A specific classification, Dirigo poly Maine Coons, have been shown professionally many times. According to Main-CoonCat, "Dirigo Dazzle won 13 rosettes as best HHP kitten in her first show at TICA, in Portland, Maine in 2000".
10. The Guinness World Record for Most Toes Is 28
Jake, a ginger tabby cat, holds the Guiness World Record for the most toes. In 2002, Jake's veterinarian counted up an astonishing 28 toes! He has 7 toes on each foot, and each toe has its own claw, pad, and bone structure. Ginger Jake lives in Ontario, Canada.
However, more recently, a cat in Northfield, Minnesota tied Jake's record! Paws, a white and black tabby polydactyl cat, also has 28 toes. But her digits vary differently than Jake's.
Paws has 3 extra toes on each front paw and 1 extra toe on each rear paw. Her mother states that when she goes to the vet for claw trimmings, they don't even charge her extra!
We'd love to hear from you in the comments below. How many toes does your cat have? We are curious to see if there are any other record holders out there! We love records and facts! So much so we have compiled these 163 cat facts that will blow your mind! Enjoy!
11. They're Known as Hemingway Cats
Ernest Hemingway loved Polydactyl cats and due to this they are often refered to as "Hemingway cats'' because Hemingway housed many polydactyl cats. Hemingway shared the island of Key West, Florida with 50 polydactyl cats.
Back then, we didn't spay and neuter cats as we do now. For the next 100 years these polydactyl cats bred with the local cats leading to almost 50% of polydactyls in the area.
Currently, The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum houses 40-50 polydactyl cats many of which are descendants of Hemingway's original polydactyl cat, Snow White.
Hemingway was known to name his cats after famous people, and the museum follows that tradition. About half the cats at the museum have the physical polydactyl trait. But all the cats carry the gene and therefore have the ability to pass it along to their offspring.
The Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum offers tours, houses a garden, hosts weddings and events, has a book store and gift shop, and (most importantly of all) has a fenced-in outdoor area where the cats roam. Further, the museum hosts a live webcam of the cats' outdoor area.
12. President Theodore Roosevelt had a polydactyl cat
President Theodore Roosevelt was also smitten with kitten mittens. Apparently, the Roosevelts family were animal lovers and shared the White House with many types of pets.
One pet, Slippers, was very special and often attended formal dinners at the White House. Slippers was a 6-toed blueish-grey polydactyl cat.
The Presidential Pet Museum notes that during one formal dinner, Slippers plopped down for a catnap right in the middle of the corridor. Naturally, guests were forced to obey the feline king and walk around him.
13. Polydactyl cats carry 11 different nicknames
I'm sure you have many nicknames for your cat. I know my cat has several!
But polydactyl cats are widely known under 11 different nicknames (possibly more!). Polydactyl cats are often referred to as Hemingway cats, mitten cats, conch cats, boxing cats, mitten-foot cats, bigfoot cats, double paw cats, snowshoe cats, thumb cats, six-fingered cats, and Cardi-cats.
Hemingway cats refers to Ernest Hemingway's love for these cats. He's responsible for essentially invading Key West with these beloved felines. Mitten cats and mitten-foot cats come from the mitten-shape that extra-toed cats show. It truly looks like these cats are wearing mittens! Perhaps this is where boxing cats comes from too.
Snowshoe cats arise from the Maine Coon cats and our belief that the larger foot helps with tracking through snow. Cardi-cats come from Southwestern England's Cardigan district where many polydactyly roam.
Do you know why polydactyl cats are called conch cats? Let us know in the comments below!
Many polydactyl cats have six toes (six-fingered) and appear to have double paws. Polydactyl cats are certainly "big footed" cats.
Whilst we are on the topic of cat names, here are 250 funny cat names for you to enjoy!
Final Thoughts About Polydactyl Cats
Polydactyl cats are considered lucky and many of us love them. It seems that mittened cats originated in the Maine Coon breed, but nowadays any breed can have extra toes on their paws. In most cases, this genetic mutation is harmless and even adorable.
It's a good idea to have your veterinarian take X-rays to make sure your cat's bone structure is healthy. Just like other cats, be sure to trim those extra claws and provide proper scratching areas.
Cats with mittens and large feet may learn to use them wisely so be on the lookout for escapees!
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Are you owned by a polydactyl cat? We'd love to hear about your "big footed" cats in the comments.
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