Polydactyl is a term that means “many digits,” and refers to an animal with extra toes. Most domestic cats have a total of 18 toes: five toes on each of their front paws and four toes on each hind paw. However, some felines are born with extra toes and are called polydactyl cats, Hemingway cats or mitten cats. Polydactyl cats typically have one or two extra toes on their front paws.
As a result of the extra toes, a polydactyl cat typically has huge paws that look like they could double as a catcher’s mitt. Some polydactyl cats have separated toe clusters which make them appear to have a “thumb” on their paw or that they are wearing mittens.
The Polydactyl Gene
The extra toes on a polydactyl cat are the result of a mutant gene (Pd) that is dominant. In other words, if one parent has extra toes, it’s quite likely that some of the offspring will too. If both parents have extra toes, this increases the odds of producing polydactyl kittens.
The polydactyl anomaly is found in several other animals besides cats, including dogs and guinea pigs. While all breeds of domestic cats can have extra toes, it is most common in Maine Coon cats.
Polydactyly is usually found 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.
How to Care for a Polydactyl Cat
Cats usually file down their nails by scratching. However, a polydactyl cat may have claws that are in awkward positions, which prevents them from being trimmed down naturally. This can cause the cat to snag its claws on furniture and carpeting, damaging the paw as well as your belongings. Untrimmed claws can also grow around and into the paw pad, causing the cat pain and possibly an infection.
Owners of polydactyl cats should trim the claws regularly and inspect them for ingrown claws, ripped toes, infections and growth problems related to the extra toes. Other than regular nail trimmings, polydactyl cats don’t need special care, and the extra toes do not usually present a handicap.
Are Polydactyl Cats a Breed?
Polydactyl cats are not a specific breed, and the extra toes can be found on all coat colors and patterns. However, attempts are being made to establish a many-toed Maine Coon variant as a separate breed. At present, the breed standards for all CFA recognized breeds disqualify a pedigreed cat that has extra toes. Responsible breeders of pedigreed cats will not breed a cat known to carry the Pd gene.
Why are Polydactyl Cats Called “Hemingway Cats?”
Nobel-prize winning author Ernest Hemingway acquired a polydactyl cat and became quite taken with it. Upon Hemingway’s death in 1961, his former home in Key West, Florida became a museum and a home for his cats, some of which are descendants of the original cat. The Hemingway estate currently has a colony of about sixty cats living on the grounds, and approximately half of them are polydactyl. Because of Hemingway’s love for these special felines with extra toes, polydactyl cats are sometimes referred to as “Hemingway Cats.”
Other Names for Polydactyl Cats
Although Hemingway cats is the most popular non-scientific name for polydactyl cats, they have also been called mitten cats, mitten-toed cats, thumb cats, extra-toed cats, boxing cats, six-finger cats and double-pawed cats. Another name for polydactyl cats is Cardi-cats, after the Cardigan district in southwestern England where a significant number of extra-toed cats can be found. Some polydactyl kittens and cats have an extra digit on the side of their paw, rather like human thumbs. These polydactyl cats are said to be able to use their paws to pick things up and even open cabinets with them.
Owners of polydactyl cats love them in spite of (or because of) their huge “catcher’s mitt” paws. The extra toes just make them extra special, and all the more delightful!