Cats that are born with six toes on just one or many of its paws are called Polydactyls. This is considered a genetic mutation and these cats are mostly seen on the East Coast of North America from Northern Canada to Miami, Florida; in Wales; Kingston upon Hull and in South West England. The normal cat is born with 18 toes – five on each front paw and four on each back paw. Polydactyl cats can have from 19 to as many as 27 toes, which is the Guinness World Record for the most paws on a cat.
Polydactyl cats have any combination of toes on any paws. The most common configuration is between 4 and 7 toes per paw. Usually, the number of toes is the same on both front and rear paws. It is rare to find a cat with more than 5 toes on the front paws and only four on the back.
Sailors are quite fond of these multi-toed cats and so they are very popular as cats that live on ships and control the population of mice and rats. This was because they are expert climbers and incredible hunters. Sailors also considered these cats to be good luck when the ships were at sea. Sailors are known to be very superstitious. It is not known if the mutation started in Britain and came here on the ships or if it began in New England and spread on the ships as they returned to Europe.
Ernest Hemingway’s Cats
Another cap in the feather of these cats was their relationship with the Noble Prize winning writer Ernest Hemingway. It was well known that Hemingway was particularly fond of the cats. He was given his first polydactyl cat by the captain of one of the many ships Hemingway sailed. The cats multiplied and became feral at his home in Florida.
The Key West estate is now a museum and permanent home to the descendants of Hemingway’s polydactyl brood. There are currently about 50 of these cats living there. Many people are known to refer to the polydactyl cats as “Hemingway’s Cats” as opposed to polydactyl or six toed cats.
Many of the polydactyl cats in Europe were killed during the Inquisition and Dark Ages as they were considered to be the witches’ familiars. However there are still many polydactyl cats in Europe today despite these mass killings.
The breed has many nick names beyond “ Hemingway’s Cats” and they include the names thumb cats, snowshoe cats, conch cats, mitten foot cats, Cardi-cats, mitten cats, and boxing cats. There are actually two breeds of polydactyl recognized by most cat clubs as the Maine Coon Polydactyl and the American Polydactyl.
There are populations in areas of the United States that are recognized regionally. This includes the Cardi-cat, the Boston Thumb Cat, the Vermont Snowshoe Cat. and the Ithacat. The Cardi-cat is named for Cardigan, Wales as in the Cardigan Welsh Corgi dog, and the Ithacat is named for Ithaca, New York.
Here’s to our Polydactyl cats!
Photo 1: Courtesy of Jan Tik via Flickr (CC by 2.0)
Photo 2: Courtesy of brownpau via Flickr (CC by 2.0)