It’s either very difficult to love a polydactyl cat or its very easy. There’s truly no in-between with them. People either find them exceedingly unnatural, or uncommonly interesting. The cats themselves are often more concerned with exploring new things with their unusual paws that they don’t have time for their human families. They can be completely aloof, or very loving. Many of them are a wonderful combination of these characteristics. It can be difficult to point to common attributes, simply because polydactyl cats occur widely across many different breeds. Polydactyly is a condition, not a breed.
The fun of owning polydactyl cats is watching how very clever they are. They seem to use their extra toes and claws to open and close drawers, doors, and cabinets. Nothing seems to bring them more happiness than digging items out of boxes and containers. They have been seen climbing up wallpapered walls and digging into upper corners of rooms using their extra thumbs for balance. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t supposed to have true thumbs, because they sure do look as if they are using them as thumbs. Polydactyl cats are a never-ending rollercoaster ride of curious inspections. They’re truly great cats.
1. Polydactyl means literally “many digits”.
The origin of the word is the Greek language. “Poly” is translated as “many” and “daktylos” means “digits”. Digits are the scientific way of speaking about fingers and toes. In cats, it’s a genetic abnormality which is very common. It’s normal for cats to have five toes on each of their front paws, and four toes on their rear paws. But polydactyl cats have extra digits. Where they are located changes the appearance of their paws significantly. Some polydactyl cats have extra toes lined up in a row, and their paws can look as if they should belong on a much larger wild cat. Some polydactyl cats have extra toes which look much like thumbs, because they stick out away from the main paw at an angle.
2. It’s rare for a cat to have only polydactyl hind paws.
It’s even more rare when a cat has all four paws with the condition. The extra toes are not opposable. These cats cannot open jars on their own, but they seem to have extra clout when it comes to grabbing and holding onto toys or pulling things open. Some owners find that they are particularly good at opening desk drawers and cabinet doors. One owner watched one of the family’s two polydactyl cats pull out tissues from a Kleenex box one after the other, until all the tissues were in a pile on the floor next to the box. The cat completed the task with dexterity and speed unseen in cats with lesser paws.
3. The first polydactyl cat may have come to the United States from England …or the other way around.
Nobody knows for certain which side of the Atlantic Ocean these cats originally called home. What is known is that they are common on the East Coast of the United States and Canada, and that they are found in abundance in South West England and Wales. Two pieces of evidence are of scientific importance. Polydactyls were first recorded scientifically in 1868, and data shows that polydactyl cat populations began to emerge around the world in a pattern. The data shows that whenever a port began to trade with Boston, Massachusetts, that port showed the presence of polydactyl cats. Since trading ships arrived at the Boston port from around the world, there is no way of knowing precisely where these kittens originated.
4. Polydactyl cats were sailor’s good luck charms.
Polydactyl cats enjoyed an extreme level of popularity in the role of ship’s cats. These cats were carried along on ships to catch rats and mice. Rodents damage ships when they chew on ropes, electrical wiring and woodwork. They also would eat the sailor’s food, damage ship’s cargo, and spread disease. The Black Death was thought to have been spread by rats carrying the plague on sailing ships. Having cats on board kept the rodent population smaller. Cats also kept the sailors company on their long sea voyages away from their homes. The sailors believed that the polydactyl cats had better balance onboard ships due to their extra digits. Some were called “gypsy cats” because they traveled all around the world. Sailors believed that having a cat onboard ship helped to protect the ship from disease, wrecks, and sinking.
5. Author Ernest Hemingway adored polydactyl cats.
He wrote about his own, and that may have contributed to their fame. His first polydactyl feline was a gift from sea captain Stanley Dexter. Dexter’s cat was named Snowball. Hemingway named his new kitten Snow White. She was white, with six toes. Hemingway was said to have collected more than 50 cats, and about 50% of them had extra toes. After Hemingway died, his Key West, Florida home was made into a museum. The descendants of Snow White and Hemingway’s collected cats still live at the museum. As Hemingway wrote in a letter, “One cat just leads to another.” There are more than 60 polydactyl cats who live there now. They are as important to the museum as Hemingway memorabilia is today, simply because Hemingway was so very fond of them. That’s why polydactyls are often nicknamed “Hemingway cats”.
6. Ernest Hemingway’s polydactyl and regular cats are often named after celebrities.
The cats at Hemingway’s Home and Museum are completely well-fed and watched over. They receive weekly visits from the veterinarian, and the majority are either neutered or spayed. They are welcome to lounge on the furniture, because it is both a museum and a house for them. They have been provided with their own garden cemetery. This is where their names provoke slight controversy. Zsa Zsa Gabor is buried near Frank Sinatra. Mr. Bette Davis is buried by Marilyn Monroe. Marlene Dietrich has lived there. So have Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart. Lionel Barrymore and Hairy Truman have lounged around their digs comfortably. Capt. Tony Terracino has sauntered over the museum grounds on polydactyl paws. There is a beautiful placard in the cemetery which adds to the list of names of kitties who’ve lived life well there, and gone on. Included are John Wayne, Edgar Allen Poe, Errol Flynn, Toby Bruce, Zane Grey, Trevor Howard, Somerset, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ava Gardner, Jimmy Stewart, Sophia Loren, Emily Dickensen and many more. Visitors to the museum often comment on how Hemingway is what interests them in visiting the museum for the first time, but when they return, they come to visit the cats.
7. Maine Coon polydactyl cats have their own database.
It’s called the PolyTrak Database Service. The database is divided into three sections:
- Poly litter-tracking to record if one or both parents are polydactyl and store information about sires, dams, kittens, and the cattery that bred them.
- The Heritage section stores historic family lineage.
- The Fancier pet section includes information on all Maine Coon polydactyls.
The database exists to help the research community more completely understand Maine Coon Polydactyl cat genetics. That’s because these cats were once polydactyl at a rate of 40% within the breed. They had the highest rate of polydactyls of any breed in the past, but now, it is a trait found in many different breeds.
8. The polydactyl gene is called Pd.
It is an autosomal dominant gene which produces a deviation from the norm in terms of toes, but isn’t harmful to the cat. It all depends on what genetic codes cats inherit from their parents. It only takes one parent to be polydactyl and about 40 to 50 percent of their kittens will be born with polydactyl paws. Regardless of breeding combinations, the gene is not lethal, and it expresses itself in a variety of ways. In other words, the Pd gene can create different numbers and configurations of the extra toes, and that’s why there are so many different nicknames for polydactyl paws. Mitten paws, Big Foot paws, The Boston thumb cat, conch cats, Cardi-cat, boxing cats, Itha-cat, snowshoe cats, mitten-foot cats, mitten cats, Vermont snowshoe cat, thumb cats, and six-fingered cats are all common. These are names which emerged from the variant paw configurations, and also famous polydactyl cat colonies around the world.
9. Not all cats with extra toes are truly polydactyl.
Some cats with extra toes suffer from radial hypoplasia. It’s gene is called RH. Unlike polydactlyl, where the toes are usually harmless, radial hypoplasia is a condition which is problematic and very unhealthy for cats. Radial hypoplasia looks very similar to polydactyly. The RH gene, which is completely unrelated to the Pd gene, produces small, undeveloped, or twisted forelegs. Since these cats often have extra toes, they are sometimes confused with polydactyl felines. But, the so-called “twisty cat” condition is very painful and often cripples cats. Cats with radial hypoplasia may have trouble walking, and will look as if they are very uncomfortable. Cat lovers who discover cats with radial hypoplasia must follow their veterinarian’s recommendations for treating this painful condition. When uncertain if its polydactyly or worse, having a visit to the vet is certainly in order.
10. They walk on snow more easily than other cats.
That’s because their feet are larger than other cats. Polydactyl cats often have paws with their digits lined up evenly all in a row. This makes their paws much wider. With toes evenly spaced and spread apart, they can get a much better grip on the slippery surface. Of course, polydactyl cats who share a home with a family are not so inclined to venture out where its cold and wet. They enjoy indoor pursuits, where their extra array of toes and claws give them confidence and techniques designed to get into all sorts of other interesting things. it’s what they do best.
11. They need to have extra special pedicures.
Owners of polydactyl cats know that they must visit an experienced groomer often to keep their kitty’s claws in shape. With the extra toes come extra claws, and some cats have tiny or thin “dew claws” which are hidden deep between two toes. These can grow out into curves, which point back toward the paws and sometimes grow into the toe pads. When this happens, the cat’s paw can become infected, and is quite painful, too. An experienced groomer can find all the hidden claws between their toes and keep them clipped. This process often proves too difficult for owners to manage. Polydactyls are often skittish about having their claws clipped; because positioning the deepest toes for clipping can be downright uncomfortable. Experienced groomers will often lie a skittish Polydactyl on its side and hold it gently while the claw clipping process continues. Frequently, a polydactyl cat will be protective of its paws, and try to jerk away just as the clipping takes place. it’s not nice, but there are times when a groomer will inadvertently miss the claw and clip into the tiny blood veins at the top of the claws. This requires immediate treatment with styptic to stop bleeding. Owners have known polydactyls to show signs of cat anxiety every time they return for a claw clipping session once a vein has been nicked. A polydactyl who once enjoyed grooming can have a hard time dealing with clipping ever after. Taking a polydactyl to the vet for a professional clipping is a safer choice than going it alone at home. There are simply too many claws and toes.
12. There are Pre-axial and post-axial toe arrangements.
Pre-axial polydactyly means that the cat’s extra toes are on the inside edge of its paw. Post-axial polydactyly means that the cat’s extra toes are on the outside edge of its paw. This occurrence is not so common as the first type. In real life, it is not always completely easy to decide if a polydactyl cat has one arrangement or the other. Often, their paws have a jumble of toes in a vertical orientation rather than horizontal. It’s sometimes easiest to decide where the toes attach to the paws by turning the cat’s paw upside down to have a close look at the pads underneath. The pads, which are free of fur, show the toe groupings much more clearly. It’s highly advised to do this maneuver when kitty is feeling calm and comfy. Otherwise, the entire cluster of claws will emerge from the paw, creating a lethal weapon. At that point, it won’t seem to matter as much any more how many toes are there.
13. Double-pawed cats are not polydactyl cats.
The occurrence of double paws in a cat results from a defect in the developing embryo. The cat’s limb buds fork, and this results in two paws forming on the same leg. Without a closer look, it might be confusing to understand the difference. After all, many polydactyl cats have enough toes on one paw to equal the same amount on two. But, on closer inspection, it is possible to see the place where the two paws separate. There will generally be a more distinct and longer line of separation between the two paws than there are between each of the toes. Polydactyl cats, on the other hand, have paws whose toes appearing in clusters and decidedly attached to one fore or back leg, usually in groupings or in a straight, even line.
14. President Theodore Roosevelt owned a polydactyl cat.
The cat was named Slippers, and it was famous as one of the first cats to live in the White House. Slippers was gray, and had six toes on the right front paw. Slippers tended to fall asleep in a hallway, and this forced state banquet guests to find a way around. Slippers was the Roosevelt’s second cat. They had Tom Quartz, who ruled the West Wing of the White House completely because he was so very spoiled. But Slippers was loved and took over both floors, snoozing wherever and whenever it pleased him. When Slippers was found snoozing in the hallway, President Roosevelt led the wife of the British Ambassador, and all the dinner guests around the cat and headed for the after-dinner concert in the East Room. Slippers was left to sleep in the Cross Hall, on its very formal red carpet.
15. Charles Darwin wrote about polydactyl cats in the 1850s.
Darwin’s “The Variation of Animals and Plants Under Domestication” included his scientific records concerning families of cats which had six toes, and that this trait had been “transmitted for three generations”. There are some sources which claim that the first scientific reporting about polydactyly occurred in 1868, but Darwin’s book is evidence that this specific claim is unfounded.
16. Polydactyly exists in wild big cats, too.
There is not as much reported or known about polydactyly in wild cats, but there have been photographs published. In 1925, a polydactyl leopard photograph was published by the Bombay Natural History Society in its Journal. Each hind paw on the leopard had its own claw. The Journal also published a letter from a hunter, who had shot a leopard with the same condition. Several years later, a leopard with extra, fully functional, extra toes and claws on its hind paws was also shot during a hunt. What fascinated scientists was that these leopards had extra toes on their hind paws, which is not common in domestic cats. There had also been unverified reports from China about tigers who are polydactyl, with “thumbs”. The tigers were said to be larger than normal and part of a race of tigers which all shared the same characteristics. Since there were no photographs or captured tigers as proof, the tale has remained a tale.
17. Norwegian ship-cats were often polydactyl.
The people of Norway say that the genetic disorder of polydactyly was brought to their country when ship cats onboard Portuguese and Spanish ships began trading along the Norwegian coastline. The cats were called “Skipskatt”, the Norwegian language name for “ship cat”. The Norwegian polydactyl population is large in the mid-Norwegian area of Trøndelag.
18. Itha-cats are named for polydactyl natives of Ithaca, New York.
Ithaca is famous for its population of polydactyl cats. So famous, in fact, that Dr. Bruce Kornreich of the Cornell Feline Health Center presented a lecture about the genetics and history of Ithaca’s polydactyl cats at The History Center in Tompkins County. He included in his talk information about Caesar Grimalkin. He’s the Ithaca Kitty, and he may be one of its most famous polydactyl cats in America. Caesar was a gray tiger cat with white front paws. He had seven toes on each one. He lived with the Smith family in 1890. Their daughter Celia created Caesar’s cat form using muslin, and her sister-in-law Charity, painted him. Caesar was made into a stuffed toy, and his naïve demeanor caught on very quickly. His likeness became popular all across the United States. His muslin toy kitty form was sold in many important department stores and at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. But, the two artists had left off his extra toes. The History Center created modern versions of the Caesar toy, which included all his toes, in honor of Ithaca’s commitment to celebrating diversity.
19. Cardi-cats are polydactyl cats named for Cardiganshire, Wales.
Cardigan was a busy sea port, and there were plenty of ship’s cats concentrated in the area. It was once one of Wale’s busiest shipping ports, and experts explain that this is why the polydactyl population became concentrated there. The cats in the area often have six or seven toes. The area is in the Southwest of England, which was a destination for many ships doing business between Asia, Europe and North America.
20. In the dark ages, polydactyl cats were hunted and killed.
People thought that they were the witches’ “familiars”. Because they looked unusual, the superstitions about witchcraft prevailed, and these cats were destroyed, perhaps in larger numbers than usual cats. it is said that the practice was so common that there were hardly any polydactyl cats left after a time. InEurope, this practice led to rare births of polydactyl cats, if at all. Some experts report that some Europeans have never seen them. However, they remain common in Britain, and in Sweden and Norway. There is also a modern day high incidence population in Halifax, Nova Scotia.