2017-04-12 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

“Polydactyl” sounds like a type of dinosaur or a chemical compound. Instead, “polydactyl” is an adjective referring to a “Feline Big Foot.” Most cats have 18 toes - four on each front paw; five on each rear paw- but cats with more toes are described as “polydactyl,” which is an interesting phenomenon in many ways.

*Being polydactyl is a genetic mutation in cats. The trait is passed down via a dominant gene. If one parent has the gene and the other has the normal number of toes, then 40-50 percent of the kittens will be polydactyl. The condition can be a spontaneous mutation too. The word “polydactyl” is Greek for “many digits.” It’s a relatively common abnormality in domestic cats. Most polydactyl cats have extra toes on their front paws which often resemble mittens, but a cat can have extra toes on both front and back paws. It is rare to have extra toes on hind paws only. As of 2015, the Guinness World Record for most toes was 28. A Canadian ginger tabby named Jake held the record with seven toes on each paw, each with its own claw, pad and bone structure.

A polydactyl cat at the Hemingway house in Key West A polydactyl cat at the Hemingway house in Key West *This condition is usually harmless. Trimming nails on polydactyl cats can be more difficult. Their paws need attention. The claws may grow into their paw pads and need to be trimmed regularly – more so if the cat has the so-called “super claw.” This means that two extra toes are fused together, and so the nail bed is also fused, causing the claw to be thicker. It may curl and twist and grow back to the paw pad, causing an infection, if left untrimmed.

“Mitten paws” occur when the extra toes are attached to the medial side of the cat’s paw, giving it a thumb-like appearance. While they may resemble a thumb, these extra digits aren’t opposable like our gripping thumbs. Meanwhile, polydactyl cats without ‘mittens’ appear to have jumbo feet, earning them nicknames like “snowshoes paws,” “bigfoot cats” and “pancake feet.”

Some cats appear a bit clumsy if they have big feet and extra toes. However, there is a genetic condition called “feline radial hypoplasia” in which extra toes occur. Radial hypoplasia causes other birth defects in addition to an excess of toes, such as underdeveloped or twisted forelegs, which is a disability. Such cats should be neutered to prevent passing on the abnormality. (My two cents: All cats, except for breeding purebred or show cats, should be neutered because of the huge cat overpopulation problem.)

*Years ago sailors believed extra-toed cats to be good luck. Sailors liked cats and considered them their mascots. Cats kept the mice and rats at some control, which was essential for everyone’s well-being. Six-toed cats were special, because sailors believed these cats kept their balance better at rough seas, were better climbers and better ratters too. Sailors called them “gypsy cats.”

The sailors were superstitious and believed that if the ship’s cat fell overboard it would take revenge and call a storm wind to sink the ship. Therefore, ship cats were taken care of, especially since the sailors also believed the cat could invite winds with its tail, depending on its mood. Everyone aboard the ship wanted the cat to be happy.

Nowadays many still consider polydactyls to be good luck cats. The trait does help these special cats to be adopted in shelters because their feet are different and cute.

*Polydactyl cats are more common in certain parts of the world. There are polydactyls in Europe, Asia plus eastern parts of the US and Canada. Polydactyl cats arrived in America first in the Boston area, probably from ships coming from England during the 17th century. There are concentrations of polydactyl cats in Boston, Yarmouth, Halifax, Nova Scotia and Massachusetts. Wales and Southwest England were ports of origin.

*Being polydactyl is common in certain breeds. Having extra toes was a useful trait for Maine Coon cats. For a breed originating in snowy Maine, giant 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. Local legends tell of these polydactyl Maine Coons catching fish straight from the water with their huge paws, and even carrying fish back to their people. PixieBob and Mojave spotted cats, two breeds not as familiar as Maine Coon, tend to have a large percentage of polydactyl offspring also.

*The term “Hemingway cat” has become a synonym for “polydactyl,” though not all polydactyls are “Hemingway cats.” In the 1930s, a sea captain named Stanley Dexter gave Ernest Hemingway a polydactyl kitten born from his own cat, Snowball, probably a Maine Coon. The cat-loving author named the kitty Snow White, and that cat went on to produce numerous polydactyl kittens at Hemingway’s Key West, Florida, home.

Hemingway wrote in a letter, “One cat just leads to another.” Presently, there are about 50 polydactyl cats - some Snow White’s descendants living at the Hemingway House and Museum. They are protected as a historical treasure and have become a tourist attraction. The cats receive regular veterinary care, including vaccinations and treatments for fleas, parasites and ear mites. Since Hemingway named all of his cats, that tradition continues today at his estate.

Another famous polydactyl cat was Theodore Roosevelt’s cat Slippers who thought he owned the White House and appeared at meetings and press conferences to supervise whatever was happening.

Waiting to be Adopted at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643-9270) Lamar St., W. Babylon: “Tina” 7-93 doesn’t have extra toes but she does have plenty of “purrsonality.” She’s a nine-month-old gray tabby kitten. “Bailey” 17-114 is a nine-year-old Beagle mix, eager to show his tricks like “Sit” and “Shake.”

Return to top