Polydactyl Cats

What Are Polydactyl Cats?

Polydactyl simply means many fingers, (or many digits.)

Usually domestic cats have four toes, plus a dewclaw, on each of their front paws and four toes on each of their back paws.

Some cats are born with more than the usual amount of toes. These are called Polydactyl cats.

Polydactyly is usually found only on the front paws but there are also cats with extra toes on all four of their paws.

The extra toes are almost always evenly distributed, the same amount on both front paws or the same on all four paws. Very rarely will a cat have extra toes only on the back paws.

Polydactyly is a genetic trait the result of a mutant gene.

If one parent has the extra toes then it is quite possible some of the kittens will, if both parents are polydactyl cats then this will increase the likelihood of polydactyl kittens.

Are Polydactyl Cats a Breed of Cat?

No, polydactyls are not a specific breed, although attempts are being made to establish a many toed Maine Coon variant as a distinct breed.

black polyactyl catThis black cat is displaying his extra clawed front paw.

Polydactylism can be found in most breeds, but unfortunately most breed standards prohibit polydactyl felines from being shown.

Polydactyly generally does not cause a cat any problem.

Extra toed kittens sometimes may take a little longer to learn to walk but these cats suffer no disadvantage.

Radial Hypoplasia is related to one type of polydactyly that causes not only extra toes but also deformities to the cat's legs, thankfully this is a rare condition.

Why The Name Hemingway Cats?

Ernest Hemingway ( 1899-1961) famous writer and journalist, winner of both the Nobel Prize for Literature and the Pulitzer Prize, moved into a house on Key West, Florida in 1931 where he lived for some years.

While living at this house he was given a cat by a ship's captain. This cat, named Snowball, had extra toes and it is believed to have been a Maine Coon.

The much loved Snowball was allowed to roam free and soon there were many polydactyl cats in Hemingway's home and around the neighborhood. To quote Hemingway himself, “One cat leads to another.”

Today the house is a museum dedicated to Hemingway. The museum maintains a colony of around sixty cats who are protected under the terms of Hemingway's will. Many, but not all, of these cats have extra toes. Some of the polydactyl cats are believed to be descendants of Snowball.

The cats of the museum are referred to as Hemingway Cats, but the name is also used for any cat with many toes as an alternative to the term polydactyl.

Why The Name Mitten Cats?

Some polydactyl kittens and cats that have six toes on their front paws have the extra digits on opposing sides of the paws, rather like human thumbs.

mitten cat image
Mitten Cats.

A quick glance at the paws and it may appear that the cat is wearing mittens, hence the term Mitten Cats. These cats are also known as Thumb Cats.

It is said that these mitten cats are able to use their paws in ways that normal cats can't, using the extra toe to grasp objects and even pick up objects with a single paw.

Not Only Cats

Polydactyly is not restricted to the domestic cat although it is most frequently associated with our feline friends, extra digits are also occasionally found on some of the big cats.

Dogs too can be polydactyl, in fact in at least two breeds, the Lundehund and Great Pyrenees, the extra digits (often referred to as dewclaws,) are part of the breed standard.

Polydactyly in humans is not that uncommon, usually though the extra toes or fingers are nonfunctional, often they are boneless digits or do not have joints.

These non functioning extra digits are often removed in infancy which is why you rarely meet polydactyl people.

Polydactyl Cats in Europe

It is sometimes said that polydactyl kittens and cats are very rare in Euorpe because they were persecuted and killed during medieval witch hunts.

The fact is though that all cats were persecuted at this time, not just cats with many toes. It was thought that anyone keeping a cat must be practicing witchcraft.

There are significant numbers of polydactyl kittens and cats in southwestern England, the Cardigan district of Wales, (hence the expression Cardi Cats,) Sweden, Norway and Ireland. So polydactyls are no rarer in Europe than they are elsewhere, at least in parts of it.

President Roosevelt shared the White House with a polydactyl feline called Slippers who was very popular at press conferences.

Seafarers once considered polydactyl felines to be lucky mascots are were always pleased to have one aboard ship.

A more practical reason may have been because the many toed cats, with their slightly bigger feet, had better balance on the rolling ships and so were better able to catch rats and mice.

Polydactyl cats are known by many names including, Hemingway cats, mitten cats, thumb cats, lucky cats, boxer cats, Cardi cats, and ships cats.

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