Have you ever met a cat with extra toes on his feet? If you are around enough cats chances are you will eventually meet one. I have met a few and always wondered about these multi-toed felines.
There is a name for this condition called polydactyl (pronounced pol-ee-dak-til). It is of Greek origin meaning polys (many) and dactylos (finger). Most domestic cats have five toes on their front feet and four toes on their back, for a total of 18. Polydactyl cats boast more toes because of a genetic mutation which allows them to have up to eight digits per paw, usually on the front feet.
The genetic mutation that causes the extra toes generally is completely harmless and not considered a deformity. It is not particularly uncommon, nor is it confined to any specific breed. Occasionally with the extra toes problems can be encountered with overgrown or ingrown claws causing discomfort. They should have their claws trimmed regularly to prevent a nail growing into a pad. Other than that these felines don’t need any special care and the extra toes don’t typically present a problem or handicap.
How this genetic trait started or expanded is something of a mystery to this day and up for debate. There is a general agreement polydactyl cats were on ships originating in Boston.
Polydactyl cats have been extremely popular as ship’s cats and were rumored to be extraordinary mousers and hunters used on ships to keep the rodent population in check. It was also believed their extra toes gave them better balance on ships that encountered rough waters. Some sailors even believed the cats to be extremely good luck when at sea.
The cats’ many travels to different ports might explain their widespread presence today, predominantly in the United States, Canada, England and Wales.
Sometimes you will here these cats referred to as “Hemingway Cats.” The American writer Ernest Hemingway was a lover of polydactyl cats after he was given his first one by a ship’s captain, a six-toed feline named Snowball. Today nearly 50 cats still live at the author’s home in Key West.
President Theodore Roosevelt also had a six-toed cat, named Slippers.
According to Guinness records, the title for the cat with the most toes belongs to Jake, a ginger tabby with seven toes on each paw for a grand total of 28 toes.
Sally Salopek is the owner and operator of Attend-A-Pet pet sitting services in northern Door County. She has also worked professionally with animals in health care, pet grooming, training, wildlife rehab and rescue. Send your pet-related questions to her at [email protected].