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Surprisingly it wasn’t until last week, when I kitty sat the uber-adorable Max, that I encountered a polydactyl cat. I knew they existed but, like an elusive unicorn, I had never seen one for myself. Max inspired me to do a post on polydactyl cats and what better time to post than today, August 6th, which is “National Wiggle Your Toes Day”. I wanted to learn a little bit about Polydactyl Cats – you know those cats with the extra toes to wiggle – also known as Hemmingway’s cats, Snowshoe cats or Mitten cats.

We all love those little kitty jelly beans on the bottom of their paws but what does it really mean when a cat has a few extra and is there any reason for them?

Polydactyl cats probably became very well known since the 1930’s because of author Ernest Hemmingway’s love for these multi-toed felines. He was given a white six-toed cat, which he appropriately named Snow White (or Snowball, it’s a 50/50 split on the name depending on which article you read), by ship’s captain Stanley Dexter and developed such a love for them that it is reported he eventually had up to 50 of them living at his home in Key West, Florida. Today his house is a museum and is still home to 40-50 polydactyl cats, many of which could be related to the original Snow White.

Hemmingway was by no means the only famous person with polydactyl cats. Theodore Roosevelt had a poly cat named Slippers, which moved with him into the White House when he was elected president. Apparently Slippers made herself right at home, sleeping in the middle of hallways and forcing visitors to step around her. Appropriate for the presidential cat, if you ask me! Slippers is pictured here with Roosevelt's son.

The gift of a multi-toed cat from a Captain Dexter was quite significant because these cats (sailors called them “Gypsy Cats”) were believed to bring even more good luck on ships than regular cats due to their allegedly superior hunting and better balance. Polydactyl cats can be found all over the world no doubt due to their popularity on ships. However, England, Wales and the eastern coasts of the United States and Canada seem to have higher than normal populations leading to speculation that the phenomenon evolved to help cats in colder climates experiencing more snowfall, possibly acting as mini snowshoes.

The average cat has 18 toes on their 4 feet … 4 toes and a dewclaw on each of their front paws and 4 toes on each back paw. Polydactyl cats have more than the norm, typically one extra on each front paw, hence the term six-toes cats. The term polydactyl comes from the Greek, literally translated as “many fingers”. The extra toe is normally found on the inside of the front paws. It is also possible for a cat to have a different number of toes on each of the front paws. The extra toes can make it look like the cat has extraordinarily large feet or the cat may have an extra toe that looks like a thumb, often called “Mitten Cats”, which is what Max has - and it so cute. The “thumb” is not opposable but some owners have reported their mitten cats are exceptionally adept at opening doors and latched cupboards. Owners also swear their polys have milder temperaments, better overall good health, are outgoing, affectionate, patient, and good with kids.

Picture Credit Robert Silkja

The extra toe comes from a dominant gene carried by one or both of the cat parents and gender has no bearing on the gene or mutation. Although it is inherited there is no guarantee that the kitten(s) will have the same configuration of toes as the parents, or for that matter, have it at all. Researchers have deemed that there is a limit to the number of toes that form topping out at 8. The highest number of toes on a cat was recorded as 32 divided among all four paws. Polydactyl paws can found in any breed, any color, any size and personality of cats now but at one time the trait was most common in Maine Coon cats with almost 40% being polydactyls, lending some credibility to the “snowshoe” theory.

(Picture Credit" Robert Silkja)

The multi-toes seem to cause no discomfort for the cat and they see no difference in the quality of life, but depending on the configuration of the toes their claws may need a little extra attention. Because their paws are a slightly different shape than normal their claws they may not shed the sheath as easily and occasionally the claw grows back into the paw pad. According to Dr. Debora Lichtenberg, VMD;

“In the typical “thumb” polydactyl cat, these extra 1, 2 or 3 claws are placed where the one dewclaw normally would be. They never get worn down with average running, jumping or tearing up of prized furniture, so they need to be monitored and clipped occasionally.

There is often an extra claw between the “thumb” and the foot, which can grow around and become embedded in the foot or pad, causing pain and infection. I teach my clients how to keep these extra claws clipped or recommend removal of the claw, not the toe.

If there are extra toes in the rear, certain mutations must be monitored more carefully than others. Some cats have toes hanging off above the foot, as in a Great Pyrenees. These kitties have a tendency to rip these in normal play or running and require removal after a traumatic event.

When I see a young cat come in with some of these abnormal and problem-causing extra claws, I discuss with the client that, at spay or neuter, it would be very easy to remove the offending claws and save the client from nail trims forever or the possibility of a severely infected foot from embedded claws or trauma. These cats go home with no bandages, and I emphasize that this is absolutely not like a declaw. These claws are often smaller, may be growing aberrantly and are never walked on — so recovery is quick and quite painless.

Often we are talking about removing only 2 claws.

Many cats today are spayed or neutered in shelters or at low-cost spay-and-neuter clinics. The extra toes don’t seem to get attention. I see more and more older cats with extra toe problems coming in with severely overgrown nails or, unfortunately, painful infections. The clients are clueless as to the cause and feel terrible.

So if you have a cat with mittens or thumbs, check out all the claws and how and in which direction they are growing. Have your veterinarian explain how to keep an eye on your special polydactyl cat, and trim the nails when necessary.”

Do you own a multi-toed cat? Any thoughts or ideas?

Thanks for reading,

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