Mystery and intrigue has always surrounded polydactyl cats. Where did they come from? How did their mutation occur? At the end of the day, does it really matter?

Polydactyl cats are noted for their extra toes; usually just on the front paws, but often on the back paws too. Indeed, polydactyl is from the Greek – poly = many, + daktulos = fingers.

Normally, cats have five toes on their front paws, and 4 toes on their back paws, making a total of 18 toes. Polydactyl cats can have as many as 8 or even 10 digits on each paw with some that look like a thumb and for this reason, they are often called ‘mitten’ cats.  Kittens seem to inherit the same toe configuration as their poly parent. So if a parent has an extra toe, the kitten will inherit an extra toe; if the parent has a double dewclaw, the kittens may have that trait as well.

Having extra toes doesn’t usually cause any health problems for the poly cats although the nails may require extra trimming to avoid snagging on carpets when it walks, or on soft furnishings. And at times, the toenails tend to grow too long and may grow in a semi-circle back into the paw – requiring the intervention of a vet.  Veterinarians do not consider polydactylism to be a deformity or a handicapping condition. It is considered an anomaly and an anomaly is defined as a deviation or departure from the normal form or rule. 

Polydactyly is more common among New England cats, and some people say ‘mitten footed cats’ originated there. Some sources say that ships’ captains carried them onboard because they were considered lucky (and better mousers, one source said) which was an important shipboard duty of cats. An article from Cornell University’s Cat Watch (1998) looked at studies done on polydactyl cats from the 1940’s to the 1970’s, and tentatively concluded that the trait probably initially occurred in cats who came over from England to the Boston area with the Puritans in the mid 1600s. There was also speculation in the article that the mutation might have developed in cats already in the Boston area, and descendants of those cats were carried aboard trading ships to the Halifax, Yarmouth MA, and Nova Scotia areas, which now have sizable multi-toed cat populations.

In Europe, polydactyl cats are virtually non-existent, because during medieval times any cat that was unusual was put to death due to superstitions regarding witchcraft.  Polydactyls have been seen in the household pet population in Sweden, but not in Europe. I myself have seen a pair of polydactyl kittens from the same litter that were silver grey tabbies – and just for the record, if I hadn’t already got 7 cats at the time, I would have taken them on as well!!!!

Although Maine Coons seem to have the predominant polydactyl gene, it should be stressed that any type of cat can be a polydactyl.

Legends abound and local folk tales claim that these cats were fierce hunters and could use their oversized paws to catch live fish right out of the streams. These tales included stories of cats bringing fresh fish home to help feed their human families.

There have been many famous polys. President Theodore Roosevelt had a poly named Slippers. Slippers was one of the first feline residents of the White House and was often the centre of attention at press conferences and official functions.

The author Ernest Hemingway had a Maine Coon poly that was named Snowball. He reportedly had six toes on his front paws. Hemingway had an estate on the island of Key West in the Florida Keys. One story sited that Snowball was a gift from one of Hemingway’s drinking buddies who was a sea captain named Stanley Dexter. Another claims that a sea captain gave Hemingway a female double pawed cat that was named Princess. Sailors believed that six-toed cats were lucky. Cats arrived on Key West in the early 19th century in the company of sailors looking for sunken treasure.

Tourists visiting Hemingway’s home in Key West will find dozens of cats strolling, sleeping, and leaping about the house and grounds. They are reputedly descended from Hemingway’s six-toed cats and some have as many as eight toes on each foot! It is said that there are approximately 60 cats residing at the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum and about half are polydactyl. Over the years, these cats have bred with the local cats resulting in a very high ratio of polydactyl cats to non-polys.

One thing that does puzzle me about polydactyl cats and that is this: if they did originate from England (where I live) why don’t we, here in the UK, see more evidence of them? I have only ever seen one pair of polydactyl kittens and that was about 5 or 6 years ago. Indeed, although I had heard of it, I had never seen a polydactyl cat before or since then. And if it did originate in England – what caused that first mutation?        

Some of the above information on polydactyl cats was obtained in an article by Janet Marr and you can read it in part - on her website - the address is given below.  The full article was originally published in a magazine called Maine Coon International Issue 15:3/98 in the UK. Sadly, the magazine is no longer in business.

If you are interested in obtaining a Maine Coon poly you can apply here:

Read about Mittens and Pinto - two cats who have an abundance of toes between them!



In the Middle of a World...

"In the middle of a world that has always been a bit mad, the cat walks with confidence."

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