Polydactyl cats? What are they?
If pronouncing the term makes your tongue go to a knot, then maybe mitten cats or thumb cats ring a bell? Yes, the ones with extra toes. The term comes from the Greek words
poly (= many) and daktulos(= fingers).
If you have ever seen a polydactyl cat, you won’t forget the sight. Those paws are just unforgettable. Big, sturdy and personal. A real Big Foot of the cat world.
There are many stories about the six-toed cats, among others that they were hunted and killed in the witch hunts of the dark ages, because they were thought to be the familiars of witches. But then again – in their ignorance they did kill all sorts of cats, so of course polydactyls were affected too.
There are polydactyls in Europe, Asia and USA. They arrived in USA 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. At the other end of the ancient shipping line between the Old and the New World is Southwest England, and so it is not surprising to find a concentration of cats here. The Cardigan area was an especially busy port, and the polydactyls in the area are fittingly called cardi-cats.
The Norwegians also have their “ship cats”, which were (and are) the six-toed ship cats travelling the west coast of the country. Just the other day, when I was writing this article, a neighbor started talking about a friend of hers who had bought a “Norwegian sailor cat” as she called it. I asked did the cat perhaps have extra toes and she said that yes, it had six toes on its front feet.
Sailors liked cats and considered them good-luck bringers – they were their mascots. Also the cats kept the mice and rats at some control, which was essential for everyone’s well-being. Six-toed cats were in special favor, because sailors believed these cats kept their balance better at rough seas, were better climbers and better ratters too. The sailors were a superstitious lot and believed that if the ship’s cat fell overboard it would take revenge and call a storm wind to sink the ship. So in all probability the ship cats were taken very good care of. Especially when the sailors also believed the cat could invite winds with its tail – and what kind the wind was depended on the cat’s mood. So everyone wanted the cat to be happy.
What causes all those extra toes? It is simply a genetic mutation, which appears in other mammals as well, but seems to be most common in cats. It seems any cat breed can be polydactyl, but it seems this trait is most common in Maine Coons - as much as 40% of the breed used to be polydactyl before the breeding standards were set so that polydactyls were basically bred out. Only lately has there been an attempt to re-introduce the extra toes… (Why? Well, people love those big paws!) 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. True or not, at least their bigger paws acted like snow shoes and made it easier for a cat to negotiate snowy landscapes.
The PixieBob and Mojave spotted cat are also breeds with a great percentage of polydactyly.
If one parent carries the gene, half of the kittens born are polydactyl – they may have extra toes or extra dewclaws.
Normally a cat has 18 toes – five on front paws, and four on the hind paws. Polydactyl cats, on the other hand (err… paw) can have up to seven toes per paw. Usually the front paws and hind paws match in toe-numbers, but it is possible for a cat to have a different number of toes on each foot.
Normally (so to speak) it is more common for a cat to have those extra toes on its front paws, but a cat can have them on both front and back paws. It is rare to have extra toes on hind paws only (should this be the case, then usually these are extra toes instead of extra dewclaws).
The term “thumb cat” comes from the form of polydactuly where it really looks like a cat has a thumb. For this to be the case, the toe needs to have both a terminal pad and paw pad (like the fingertip and the ball of thumb of humans). This thumb sticks out at an angle, and can be wiggled separately. Just check this video:
There are variations to the “thumb-theme”: a thumb foot can have one extra toe, or two extra digits (which means the thumb-part has two toes) or three extra digits (the thumb has three extra toes).
There are rarely thumbs on hind feet.
These thumbs make it easier for a cat to grab things and many polydactyl cats’ owners swear their cats are more intelligent because of this – they even open latches and grab things with one paw only. These thumbs give the cat a chance to use its paw almost like a human.. Still, this doesn’t seem to be a thing favored by the evolution – probably because the cat does not walk on its hind legs.
Polydactyly is called pre-axial if the extra toes are on the inside edge of the paw, and post-axial when they are of the outside edge (this is the more uncommon occurrence).
Polydactyl cat is not the same as a double-pawed cat. Double pawed is a developmental defect: an embryo’s limb buds fork and this causes two paws to form on the same leg.
“Normal” polydactyl cats are quite healthy, but there is a form of “bad polydactyly” also. This is called the twisty mutation – the cats forelimbs are deformed and twisted. The condition called radial hypoplasia causes the cat to have an underdeveloped radius, and radial agenesis cause the radius to be missing completely. As the radius is a major bone in the cat’s leg, you can imagine the difficulties in walking. Sometimes the thalidomide-incident comes to mind, because this mutation can cause the paw to be attached to the shoulder of the cat.
If your polydactyl cat has a thumb that has an extra joint, it is a sign its offspring may have this twisty condition, so do not breed such a cat. (This extra-jointed thumb is called triphalangeal pollex).
What are polydactyl cat like as pets? Their owners think they are intelligent, and that they have a more laid-back personality than many other cats. Because of this they are also patient with children. But as these cats can be of any breed, then of course their personalities can be different too.
A polydactyl cat is not for a lazy owner for the simple reason their paws need attention. The claws may grow into their paw pads and need to be trimmed regularly – all the 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, which makes the claw to be thicker. It may curl and twist and grow back to the paw pad, causing an infection. If the toe grows at an odd angle, the cat may not be able to use the affected claw at scratching post. This may cause the claw to overgrow (and give the impression it grows faster than the normal claws). If the super claw grows badly into the paw pad, it may be necessary to declaw the toe – a procedure not normally encouraged.
There are many reports of cats having 28 toes (Mooch in New England, USA; Jake in Canada; Patsy, a Maine Coon in Boston, USA and many others). And there are cats with even more toes - the greatest amount was 32. The cat's name was Mickey Mouse, but it may have been double-pawed, not polydactyl.
One of the most famous polydactyl cats was Theodore Roosevelt’s cat Slippers (what a fitting name!). Slippers of course thought he owned the (White) house and acted accordingly, appearing in meetings and press conferences to supervise whatever was happening.
And the most famous friend of polydctyl cats was of course Ernest Hemingway, whose love for these cats actually caused his own polydactyls to be named the Hemingway Cats.
Polydactyl cats are also bred on purpose, and the American Polydactyl Cat is a breed in development. It should not be confused with the pedigreed Maine Coon polydactyl cats whose breeding has started again.
The American Polydactyl is medium to large in size, with good musculature. It should have a broad, rounded chest and straight sturdy legs. The head is broad and medium-sized with wide set pointy ears. The chin should be squared. All colors are accepted in the eyes. The cat may be bobtailed, and if this is the case, the hind legs should be much longer than the front legs, and the body should be shorter. The cat can be short- or longhaired (medium-long haired), but in either case the coat should be fine and silky and lie close to the cat’s body.
At this point any extra-toed cat can be registered as an American Polydactyl, and as the registration is not fixed, outcrossings are allowed.
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The photo of the polydactyl kitten in a box in copyrighted by iStockphoto / deemac. Do not copy.
The photos of the grey polydactyl cats paws are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.5 License. Attribution: Photographed by Rudy Suarez / Nov. 2006 / Cat: Mya Suarez
The picture of the grey and white cat's mitten feet is licensed by GNU Free Documentation License.
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