Extra-Toed Love: Polydactyl Cats!
I love when cats have extra toes. Besides their impressively heightened ability to hunt and grab, I just can’t get enough of those great big paws! According to Chris Dinesen Rogers, polydactyl cats occupy a unique place in both cat biology and historical significance. The term “polydactyl” refers to the extra digits present on a cat’s paw. It is perhaps the association with historic figures that ensures the special place these in Americana.
Normally, cats have four digits and a dew claw on each of their front paws, with four toes on each of the back paws. In a polydactyl cat, a cat will have six or more total digits on a front paw. Extra digits may also occur in the back feet. A genetic mutation causes this occurrence.
As you may guess, it can be quite noticeable, and it almost gives a cat the appearance of wearing mittens. Legend has it that extra toes can help a cat hunt better. According to the Seattle Humane Society, polydactyl cats were considered “lucky” because of their superior hunting ability.
This fact may account for the prevalence of six-toed cats on the East Coast where ships sailed into ports. During the early days of ship transport, cats served an important function on ships and acted as natural exterminators. Any characteristic which could improve their ability to hunt was desirable, hence the polydactyl’s connection with the shipping industry.
While polydactyl cats have been around for hundreds of years, their fame grew with a cat named Snowball that was given to author Ernest Hemingway in 1935 by a sailor. Hemingway was living in Key West, Florida at the time. A devoted cat lover, he is quoted to have said, “One cat just leads to another.” No truer words were ever spoken.
Hemingway’s assortment of pets grew to about 50 cats that roamed free on his property. Today, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum keeps the original line of polydactyl cats going and ensuring their viability for future generations. Some 60 cats live on the museum grounds, and all have ties to Hemingway’s original polydactyl felines.
These six-toed cats enjoy not just their famous links with the past, but community support as well. Despite efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove them, the Key West City Commission declared the cats to be, “…of historic, social and tourism significance.” Not too many cats hold such a high honor.
In addition to Hemingway, President Theodore Roosevelt also had a polydactyl cat named Slippers. Like Hemingway’s cats, Slippers roamed freely. His famous home was shared with his feline companion, Tom Quartz.
Caring for a Polydactyl Cat
If you are fortunate enough to own a polydactyl cat, you will need to take special care with your pet’s paws. The different shape of the paw may interfere with your cat’s ability to scratch and shed the sheaths of its nails. There is also the risk that a nail may grow back into her paw. You should keep your pet’s nails trimmed and examine them periodically to make sure they appear healthy.
As long as owners pay attention to the nails, there is no reason a polydactyl cat can’t have a completely normal life. These cats hold a unique place in the hearts of those who love them.
I can vouch for the importance of keeping polydactyl kitties’ nails trimmed back, from personal experience. Left untrimmed, a nail may grow back into the paw and cause pain/infection. If regular trims, performed by the parent or someone else (always a vet tech for our kids!), are not possible, please reconsider adopting a cat with extra toes. Usually these cuties are “special” at the shelters and the staff will know which ones are poly, as they really stand out! Adoption counselors will want to know that potential parents are aware of, and willing to take care of, the nail maintenance needs of said kitties.
LoveMeow lists more ways of referring to poly cats: Hemingway’s love for polydactyl cats helped coin the slang, Hemingway cat or Hemingway, for these animals…Hemingway is not the only nickname to describe polydactyl cats. They are often called mitten foot, mitten cat, boxers, boxing cats, thumb cats, Cardi-cats, and so forth.
I had a kitty whose paws were often referred to as “baseball mitts”. Just seeing his paws made me smile!
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