If you ever take a visit to Ernest Hemingway's house in Key West, Florida, you will see that the house is filled with tourists, a couple of guides, and plenty of cats with six toes! That's right, these kitties are scientifically called polydactyl cats, but they're also known as Hemingway cats because the author was a great lover of these special little creatures.
What causes a cat to have six toes, you ask? Good question! Let's dig in.
What is a Polydactyl cat?
Normally, cats have five toes on their front paws and four on their back. Polydactyl [pronounced pol-ee-dak-til] cats, however, have an extra toe on at least one of their feet, usually a front foot. In Greek, poly means "many" and daktylos means "digits or toes." There you have it folks: A polydactyl cat is a cat with many toes.
Along with being named after the literary great Ernest Hemingway, polydactyl cats are also referred to as "mitten cats," "big-foot cats," "six-toed cats," or "cats with thumbs."
What causes cats to have an extra toe?
Dr. Arnold Plotnick of Manhattan Cat Specialists explains that some cats have extra toes because of an inherited gene. If one parent is polydactyl and the other is not, 40-50 percent of the kittens will also be polydactyl. Those are some pretty strong odds!
Most of these extra toes look just like the cat's other toes. If the first digit, the dewclaw, is so large that it resembles a thumb, this is called Thumb Cat Polydactyly. Cats with this condition have paws that look like a mitten hence the nickname "mitten cats."
The six-toed cat through history
Six-toed cats have been around for centuries and have managed to paw their ways into the hearts of some pretty prominent figures.
- The first scientific record of polydactyl cats is from 1868. These cats roamed mostly in the northeastern United States and Nova Scotia. Some claim that the cats were brought to America by English Puritans in the 1600s.
- Mitten cats were often adopted into a life at sea as sailors considered them good luck. The cats were great at catching mice and were thought to have better balance on the raging waters. All thanks to that extra toe, of course. We can't argue with that logic!
- American author Ernest Hemingway was given his first six-toed cat by the captain of a ship. The literary master named the cat Snowball and brought her home to his Key West home in Florida. Now, close to 50 of Snowball's descendants still live at the Hemingway home! They are friendly with tourists and love it when you pet them gently!
- President Theodore Roosevelt had a mitten cat named Slippers. Slippers was one of the first cats to grace the White House with their presence.
Are polydactyl cats more common in certain breeds?
There are no cat breeds that are more or less prone to being polydactyl. The original population of Maine Coon cats, however, consisted of nearly 40 percent polydactyl cats!
One cat in particular, a ginger tabby named Jake, holds The Guinness World Record for the most toes on a cat coming in at a shocking 28 total!
Is an extra toe a health concern for cats?
If you notice your cat has an extra toe, have no fear! Polydactyly is not a health concern and should not cause your kitty any trouble. The extra toes proved helpful for those sailing cats as well as the Maine Coon cats that used their wider paws with extra digits as natural snowshoes.
Always check with your veterinarian before changing your pet’s diet, medication, or physical activity routines. This information is not a substitute for a vet’s opinion.