The Myth and Mystery of Extra-Toed Cats

Extra-toed cats, called polydactyls, have an interesting history with some famous owners.


Most cats go through life happily with 18 toes (five on each front paw and four on each back paw). But, on occasion, a cat will appear with extra toes on one or more of its paws. These amazing cats, called polydactyls, have been recorded with as many as 27 toes on one animal. Here are some fun facts about these big-footed felines.

  1. The term polydactylism is used to describe cats with extra toes. "Poly" means multiple and "dactyl" refers to digits, either toes or fingers. In cats, this genetic quirk produces one to four extra toes per paw.
  2. Extra toes generally occur on a cat's front paws, but they might show up on the back paws as well. The number of extra toes on each foot can vary.
  3. Since polydactylism is a dominant trait, once an extra-toed cat takes up residence in the family tree, chances are good that you'll see more extra-toed cats taking a foothold in the cat population. If one parent has normal feet and one parent has extra toes, then about 40–50 percent of the kittens will likely be polydactyl.
  4. Because extra-toed cats were prized as ship's cats in the 1800s, their population is highest around Boston and Halifax, Nova Scotia. Southwestern England and Wales boast larger populations of extra-toed cats than other areas of Great Britain. Sailors believed that cats with extra toes were better hunters and would bring good luck to the ship. And, that the cats' big paws would provide more traction during rough seas.
  5. Few extra-toed cats were found in Continental Europe because it is believed they were once destroyed due to witchcraft superstitions.
  6. Polydactyl cats have a variety of common names: six-toed cats, mitten cats, cardi cats, Hemingway cats, boxing cats, snowshoe cats, conch cats, and six-fingered cats.
  7. Probably the most famous fan of extra-toed cats was Ernest Hemingway who was given a white male polydactyl cat named Snowball from a passing ship captain. Today, extra-toed cats rule the roost at his home in Key West, Florida. Other famous owners of extra-toed cats include Theodore Roosevelt who had a polydactyl cat named Slippers, and George W. Bush who owned an extra-toed cat named Ernie.
  8. Because of the regional exclusivity of the trait, polydactyl cats have been instrumental in helping researchers plot human population migrations. Researchers have found that areas settled by Boston immigrants or that were on commercial shipping routes have a noticeably higher population of extra-toed cats.
  9. Most cats trim their nails by using a scratching post or other object to file them down. However, some polydactyl cats might have toes at odd angles that don't allow their nails to be filed naturally. So, if you own a polydactyl cat, check its paws regularly and trim any overgrown claws before they cause problems. Polydactyl cats can occur in any breed, but they are most common in domestic shorthairs and Maine coon cats.
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