Some friends of mine have a polydactyl cat named Dougus, whom I affectionately call “The Toes.” He certainly earns the name: With six toes on each foot, he is well above average — and he’s off the charts in good looks and charm as well.
Polydactyly is not unusual in cats, so Dougus is hardly alone in his freaky awesomeness. Here are five fascinating facts about six-(or-more)-toed cats.
Count your kitty’s toes. Odds are she has a total of 18, with five toes on each front paw and four on each rear. If your kitty is polydactyl, however, she might have as many as eight toes on any given paw. The word is Greek in origin, with “poly” meaning “many” and “daktylos” meaning “digits.”
Most polydactyl cats have extra toes on their front paws, which sometimes resemble thumbs and make your kitty look as though she’s wearing adorable mittens. These extra digits are not opposable, which means your polydactyl cat will not be able to start feeding herself at 5 a.m.
When a ship captain gave a white polydactyl cat named Snowball to writer Ernest Hemingway, the captain kicked off a pretty fantastic obsession for one of history’s most prolific cat guys. At Hemingway’s island home off Key West, FL, he collected more than 50 cats, almost half of whom had extra toes. Thanks to his obsession, today polydactyls are frequently called “Hemingway cats.”
As Catster’s Dorian Wagner did, you can visit the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum, where the cat colony still thrives — and some of the kitties are descendants of Snowball, Hemingway’s original polydactyl.
Bonus fact: Polydactyl cats are such a big deal that they’ve made it all the way to the White House: President Theodore Roosevelt had a six-toed first kitty named Slippers.
The Internet cannot agree on which polydactyl kitty actually has the most toes. According to Guinness Records, the title belongs to Jake, a ginger tabby from Canada. He boasts seven toes on each paw, for a grand total of 28. Each toe has its own claw, pad, and bone structure.
The rumor mill also tells of a 32-toed cat named Mickey Mouse who lived in the ’70s. But instead of polydactyly, he might have had a condition known as “double paws,” in which each paw is actually comprised of two fused mirror-image paws. Having extra toes is complicated!
Historically, polydactyly was a useful trait for Maine Coon cats. For a breed originating in snowy Maine, doublewide paws with extra digits functioned as natural snowshoes. At one time, as many as 40 percent of all Maine Coons had extra toes. Though the trait is no longer as predominant in the breed, Maine Coon polydactyls are still recognized as an official breed by many cat fanciers.
Back in the day, polydactyl cats got their sea legs by accompanying fishermen on many journeys. And they earned their keep — they were rumored to be excellent mouse hunters, and their extra toes gave them better balance on ships that encountered rough waters. The cats’ many travels might explain their widespread presence today, predominantly in the United States, Canada, England and Wales.
Thumbnail: Photo CC-BY Flickr user brownpau. Some modifications may have been made to fit the specifications of this site.
This piece was originally published in 2013.