Ever wondered about “Hemingway cats,” those felines with extra toes? A reader did; here’s the story!
Q: Why do some cats have extra toes?
A: Cats normally have 18 toes: five on each front paw and four on each back paw. Some cats are born with additional toes — usually on front paws, but sometimes on rear paws as well.
Any cat with extra toes is known as a polydactyl. The word comes from the Greek polydaktylos, meaning “many toes.” The first official mention of it in scientific literature was in 1868, although it’s known to have been observed prior to that time.
Polydactyly is a dominant genetic trait. That means that even if only one parent carries the gene for extra toes, 40 to 50 percent of his or her kittens can also be polydactyl. The Maine coon is one breed in which polydactyly is commonly seen, but it can occur in any cat.
The additional toes may or may not be fully functional. In feline folklore, extra toes were thought to give cats better balance, making them popular choices as ship’s cats.
Polydactyl cats are often nicknamed “Hemingway cats” for their association with the Pulitzer- and Nobel Prize-winning author, who had a number of them at his Key West home. They may also be known as “thumb cats” or “mitten cats.”
Paws, a Minnesota cat, and Jake, a Canadian cat, are both recognized by Guinness World Records as having the most toes: 28.
While polydactyly is considered a genetic abnormality, it’s a naturally occurring variation that isn’t necessarily harmful. In a study of Maine coon cats published in 2016 in the Journal of Feline Medicine & Surgery, researchers concluded that while polydactyly affected the number and shape of a cat’s toes, it had “no apparent deleterious consequence on feline welfare.”
Fun fact: Humans can experience polydactyly as well.
Read more in Pet Connection, the weekly nationally syndicated pet feature I co-write with Kim Campbell Thornton and my daughter, trainer Mikkel Becker.