As a self-proclaimed cat lover and Veterinary Technician at Gilbertsville Veterinary Hospital, I can’t help but fall in love with every kitty that walks through our door, but I find my excitement build when a kitty with extra toes comes to see us. There is just something so adorable about their fuzzy mitten feet. Cats typically have a total of 18 toes, with five toes on each front paw and four toes on each hind paw. Polydactyl cats may have as many as eight digits on their front and/or hind paws. Polydactyl comes from the Greek, “poly” meaning many and “daktulos” meaning fingers. Polydactyly is most commonly found on the front paws but occasionally occurs in the rear paws. It is very rare for a cat to be only polydactyl in the rear paws and polydactyl on all four paws is even less common.
The first official scientific recording of polydactyl cats was in 1868, however, Darwin discusses it as early as 1850. Polydactyly is a naturally occurring genetic variation that is passed down via a dominant gene. It is not a breed of cat like some believe. They are most commonly found along the East coast of the United States and Canada. They are also found in South West England and Wales.
The story behind polydactyl cats is very interesting. It is believed that English Puritans may have taken polydactyl cats on their ships to Boston during the mid-1600s. It is thought that the mutation developed in cats already residing in the Boston area. The offspring of these cats are believed to have then traveled on trading ships from Boston to Yarmouth, Massachusetts and Halifax, Nova Scotia, which might explain why these areas have a higher than normal incidence of polydactyly. In Norway, polydactyl cats are known as “ship’s cats” because the extra toes possibly give them better balance on ships in stormy weather. Many sailors consider polydactyl cats to be lucky. Sailors also considered them to be much better mousers. Their presence on ships as mousers and lucky mascots suggests that they would have indeed reached America with early British settlers, explaining the increased incidence in the northeastern United States. It is also believed that the low incidence of polydactyl cats in Europe was due to the belief that they contributed to witchcraft superstitions and were destroyed.
Polydactyl cats can also be known as Ernest Hemingway cats. Hemingway shared the island of Key West, Florida with almost 50 cats, including a six-toed cat named Snow White who was given to him by a ship captain. Because of unrestricted breeding between Snow White’s descendents and the local cats, the population of polydactyl cats grew. Today there are 40-50 polydactyl cats that live at the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Home. A majority of the felines are spayed and neutered for population control except for a select few so they can retain the excessive-toe trait of the Hemingway cats.
Other famous polydactyl cats include Slippers, one of the first feline residents of the White House, belonging to President Theodore Roosevelt. Jake, a cat owned my Paul and Michelle Contant of Ontario, Canada, holds the Guinness World Record for the most number of toes on one cat with a record 28 toes. However, Fred, a kitten born in 2011 also has 28 toes and may be a contender to tie with Jake, once it is documented by Guinness World Records.
There are many cats looking for forever homes at local shelters and rescues, including polydactyl cats. If a new fuzzy friend is in your plans remember to visit your local shelter or rescue. Who knows you may fall in love with a superfluous phalanged feline fuzzy friend.