Polydactyl cats are born with more than the usual number of toes on their paws. While most cats have five toes on their front paws and four toes on their back paws, polydactyl cats can have six (or more) on each paw.
Polydactyly is a genetic abnormality that results in extra digits and is more common in certain geographic regions of the world compared to others. It can affect any cat breed, male or female, big or small.
Read on to learn more about the genetic factors that contribute to polydactyly and to check out some adorable photos of polydactyl cats.
Polydactyly Is Caused by a Genetic Mutation
Polydactyly is caused by a genetic mutation in a dominant gene and usually results in the formation of anywhere between four to seven toes on a kitty’s paws. The front paws are most often affected by polydactyly, but it can also occur on the hind paws; it’s extremely rare for a cat to have polydactyly on all four paws.
For the most part, polydactyly is harmless to a cat’s health and wellness. It can make trimming your cat’s nails a bit more labor-intensive—and if you’ve ever trimmed your cat’s nails, you know how difficult it is, to begin with—but otherwise, there are plenty of happy, healthy kitties with a few extra toes.
It’s important to note that feline radial hypoplasia, a condition that is often confused with polydactyly, can be extremely detrimental to a cat’s health. Like polydactyly, feline radial hypoplasia causes the development of extra toes. The major difference is that the extra toes develop immediately next to the cat’s normal toes, resulting in extremely large, flat feet. If cats with feline radial hypoplasia are bred, it can cause severe paw deformities in subsequent generations.
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Some Polydactyl Cats Have “Mittens”
“Mitten paws” occur when a polydactyl cat’s extra toes form in the middle of the paw, giving it a thumb-like—or mitten-like—appearance. Although these extra digits resemble thumbs, they aren’t opposable.
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Polydactyly Can Actually Benefit Some Cats
Polydactyl cats’ toes aren’t just cute—they provide some benefits to kitties, too. Because polydactyl cats have wider, larger paws, they’re better able to balance on various surfaces, climb, hunt, and capture their prey.
If you have a polydactyl cat, be sure to buy it a scratching post or board. Those extra toes can seriously do a number on your furniture.
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Polydactyl Cats Are Considered Lucky
Like many kinds of cats (black cats and calico cats included) that were believed to bring good luck to sailors, polydactyl cats are no exception. Back in the day, polydactyl cats were a common sight on long journeys by ship.
With the help of their large, wide paws, polydactyl cats made excellent mousers and could keep the ship’s supplies vermin-free. Plus, their paws helped them balance on rocky seas.
Polydactyl cats are most commonly found in Western England, Wales, Canada, and the Eastern United States, and their prevalence in those regions is often credited to their days on trans-continental ships. It’s believed that polydactyl cats in England were transported across the Atlantic Ocean where they bred with non-polydactyl cats and proliferated the genetic trait.
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Ernest Hemingway Loved Polydactyl Cats
Have you ever wondered why polydactyl cats are sometimes referred to as Hemingway cats? Well, it’s because Ernest Hemingway loved them. After he was gifted a white, polydactyl cat named Snow Ball by a ship’s captain, Ernest Hemingway developed a serious affection for these multi-toed kitties.
After his death in 1961, his home in Key West, Florida was transformed into a museum and a home for his beloved cats. Currently, the kitty colony is home to about 50 descendants of his original pack of cats—and about half of them are polydactyl.
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The Condition Was Very Common Among Maine Coon Cats
Because Maine coon cats originated in Maine’s harsh, snowy conditions, they’ve evolved to have large, insulated paws that serve as tiny, built-in snow boots. And, lucky for Maine coons, polydactyly was very common in the breed—at one time about 40 percent of Maine coons had extra digits. Why’s it lucky? Polydactyly gave Maine coons larger, wider paws with more insulation to traverse the snowy conditions.
Today, polydactyly has been bred out of many Maine coon cats, but the breed polydactyl Maine coon is still recognized by some cat fanciers.
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One Cat Holds the World Record for Most Toes
According to the Guinness Book of World Records, a polydactyl ginger tabby named Jake holds the world record for the most toes. Clocking in at a whopping 28 toes, Jake had seven toes on each paw—with each toe having its own claw, pad and bone structure.
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Lockwood, A. Montgomery, R. McEwen, V. Bilateral radial hemimelia, polydactyly and cardiomegaly in two cats. Vet Comp Orthop Traumatol, vol 22, no. 6, pp. 511-513, 2009. doi:10.3415/VCOT-08-12-0124
Understanding the Polydactyl Cat. Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine at Tufts University.
Most toes on a cat. Guinness World Records.