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All About Polydactyl Cats

By Julia Williams

Polydactyl cats are not a specific breed, but they do have a unique characteristic that is immediately noticeable – extra toes! These extra toes make their paws look gigantic, rather like they are wearing mittens, hence the nicknames “mitten cat” and “mitten foot cat.” Another nickname is “thumb cats,” because some polydactyl cats have separated toe clusters which make them appear to have a thumb on their paw. The term polydactyl is of Greek origin and comes from poly- (many) + daktylos (fingers or toes).

Most domestic cats have 18 toes: five on both front paws and four on each hind paw. Polydactyl cats, however, are born with extra toes as a result of a genetic mutation. Polydactyls typically have one or two extra toes on their front paws. Although a polydactyl cat can have up to seven extra toes on either the front or hind paws, it’s more common for the extra toes to be on the front paws only. It’s rare for a polydactyl cat to have extra toes on their hind paws only, and rarer still to have extra toes on all four paws.

The Polydactyl Gene

The extra toes on a polydactyl cat are the result of a mutant gene (Pd) that is dominant. This means that if one cat parent has extra toes, there’s a high probability that some of the offspring will be polydactyl too. If both parents have extra toes, this further increases the likelihood that they’ll produce polydactyl kittens.

The polydactyl anomaly is found in many other animals besides cats, including humans, dogs, chickens, horses, mice and guinea pigs. Domestic cats of all breeds and colors can have extra toes, though polydactyly is most common in Maine Coon cats. Presently, the standards for all CFA recognized breeds disqualify a pedigreed cat with extra toes, and responsible breeders won’t breed a cat known to carry the Pd gene.

Other Nicknames for Polydactyl Cats

Extra toed cats have many nicknames besides the three I mentioned above, and “Hemingway Cats” is by far the most popular. Noted American author Ernest Hemingway acquired a white polydactyl cat named Snowball from a ship’s captain, and became quite fond of it. After his death in 1961, Hemingway's estate in Key West, Florida became a museum and a home for his cats, some of which are descendants of the original polydactyl cat. There is currently a colony of 40-50 cats living on the museum grounds, and about half of them are polydactyl. Although I wasn’t able to discover who coined the term “Hemingway Cats” in reference to polydactyls, it’s thought to have originated because the cats of the Hemingway Museum have become so popular and well known. 

Polydactyl cats are also sometimes called mitten-toed cats, boxing cats, six-finger cats and double-pawed cats. A lesser known nickname is Cardi-cats, from the Cardigan district in southwestern England where a significant population of extra-toed cats lives Some polydactyl cats have an extra digit on the side of their paw, rather like human opposable thumbs, which enables them to use their paws to pick things up and even open cabinets. (Okay, that is impressive – but my cat Rocky doesn’t have any extra toes, and he opens my cabinets every day!).

Caring for a Polydactyl Cat

Some polydactyl cat’s claws are in awkward positions, which prevent them from being filed down naturally through the act of scratching. This can cause them to snag their claws on your carpet and/or the furniture, resulting in damage to not only their paw but your couch as well. Untrimmed nails can also grow around and into the cat’s paw pad, causing discomfort and possibly an infection. All polydactyl cats should have their claw’s trimmed regularly and inspected for ingrown claws, ripped toes, infections and growth problems related to the extra toes. Other than that, polydactyl cats don’t need any special care, and their extra toes typically don’t present a problem or handicap.

I’ve never had a polydactyl cat myself, but I certainly wouldn’t mind. I think the extra toes are kind of cute, and besides, it makes these special kittens with mittens stand out from the crowd!

Photo by Emilie Hardman

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