Have you ever seen a mitten cat? And broken into a cold sweat even as you said “awwww!” over the fluffy feline with its extra toes? Seriously, cats with thumbs are a “what if?” world domination scenario that can keep you up at night, but you don’t have to worry about that with polydactyl cats. Their “thumbs” aren’t opposable; they’re just adorable.
What are polydactyl cats?
Polydactyl cats are mutants, so if you were wondering why they all come with bright yellow spandex suits spangled with X’s, now you know! (Okay, not all of you may have gotten a suit. Sorry. There are limited supplies, and in some continuities they’re restricted by Senator Kelly.)
This has been an extended X-Men reference. We apologize for the disruption.
As I was saying, polydactyl cats happen when there’s a mutation in their genetic code. This mutation gives kitties extra toes on any number of paws. Polydactylism is a dominant gene, so only one parent needs to have the mutation for their kittens to show up with extra toebeans – but it’s an incomplete dominance, meaning there’s only a 50% chance of its expression. (Also, since polydactylism is a mutation, it can show up anywhere, anytime, no previously mutated gene necessary.)
Cats usually have a total of eighteen toes, with their front paws having five and their back paws having four each. These extra toes may show up along the inside of the paw (pre-axial polydactyly), so your cat appears to have mittens for paws – seriously heightening their kawaii quotient. If they show up on the outside (post-axial polydactyly), the cats appear to have really wide paws – because they do! You can see where the nicknames “mitten cats” and “thumb cats” come from, along with the wide paws being called “snowshoes.” In fact, the Maine Coon breed used to have a high prevalence of polydactylism – as in polydactyls made up 40% of the breed at one point.
Having extra toes doesn’t necessarily hurt cats, and may even help them in certain situations – like northeastern winters and balancing on ships at sea. However, you should pay regular attention to a polydactyl cat’s claws, keeping them trimmed and making sure they don’t get ingrown claws or get a claw snagged and ripped out.
Where do they come from?
Polydactyl cats can turn up anywhere, but there are a few areas across the world where they’re particularly concentrated. If you’d like a good chance of finding a polydactyl cat, check out western England to find these “Boxing cats” and Wales around Cardiganshire to find “Cardi-cats.” In North America, look along the eastern seaboard of the United States and Canada – especially in Key West and in Boston. This distribution encourages the theory that polydactyl cats were favored ship’s cats, making their way from Norwegian docks to English docks to American docks.
These extra-toed felines haven’t always been welcomed as adorable variants on the typical cat look. They may have been killed in the past for this perceived harmful deformity (or because of superstition!). Polydactylism has also seen large-scale prejudice against the trait in the British cat fancier world. It doesn’t help that extra toes can also turn up with cats suffering from feline radial hypoplasia, which can result in a kitty being born with twisted forelegs, among other problems.
Famous Polydactyl Cats
Every polydactyl cat is special in their own cute too-many-toebeans way, but only a few are properly famous! Jake is the Guinness World Records title holder for “most toes on a cat.” Jake has twenty-eight toes – you read that right! This ginger tabby has seven toes on each paw. It’s a good thing Inigo Montoya was only looking for a six-fingered man in The Princess Bride; if he’d been looking for vengeance on a seven-clawed cat (times four), Inigo would be the one preparing to die.
Then there’s the presidential polydactyl Slippers – he had the run of the White House, proving that Teddy Roosevelt was one fantastic cat dad.
There’s no way to talk about polydactyls and cat dads and not mention Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway had about thirty cats in his time. One of his favorites was a white kitten with extra toes given to him by a sailor; he named that kitten Snow White. If you visit the Hemingway House in Key West today, you’ll find a truly amazing number of cats wandering the premises – and anywhere from between forty to fifty of them are polydactyls!
Hemingway once wrote, “One cat just leads to another.” There’s no arguing with that, especially where polydactylism is involved. …okay, maybe we do need to worry about world domination after all.