What is a Polydactyl Cat?

A polydactyl cat is a cat that has been born with more than the number of toes on one or more of its paws.  It is a body-type genetic mutation and is most common in populations along the east coast of North America and in south-west England and Wales.

What happens

Polydactyl catNormally, a cat has 18 toes, five on each of its front paws and four on each of its rear paws.  When a cat is polydactyl, it can have as many as eight digits on their front paws or on their rear ones.  One cat, Tiger, from Canada, currently holds the Guinness World Record for having the highest number of toes on a cat – 27!

There can be variations in the numbers between front and rear paws though both normally have the same number – for example, six toes on both the front paws or five on both the rear paws.  It is most common in the front paws and is very rare to occur just in the rear paws or even rarer for all four paws to be effected.  The nickname ‘double pawed cat’ doesn’t refer to this condition but another condition that is related to polydactyly.

History of the condition

Polydactyl cats were very popular as ship’s cats and it is unclear if the mutation started in Britain then travelled to the US and Canada aboard the ships or vice versa.  However it is clear that there are more cats with the condition in port cities than in other cities and one of the hotspots is Boston, Massachusetts.  Sailors favoured the cats because their extra toes enhanced their climbing ability and made them better hunters of rodents on the ships.  They also came to be associated with being good luck when at sea.

Genetic studies have shown a different history however.  Studies have shown there are a number of mutations that can lead to polydactyly and that the condition may have developed in both Britain and North America separately.

Ernest Hemingway, the Nobel Prize-winning author, was one famous fan of polydactyl cat after receiving his first six-toed cat by a ship’s captain.  When he died in 1961, his former home in Key West, Florida, was turned into a museum and a home for his cats, of which there are around fifty still living there and around half of them are polydactyls.  Something cats with the condition are even known as Hemingway Cats.

Some stories say that the cats were killed across Europe because they were said to be witches familiars’ yet are still relatively common across southern Britain.

Breeding

Polydactyl cats are treated as a specific cat breed and have physical and behavioural characteristics in addition to the extra toes.  Normal polydactyl cats are also a separate breed from Maine Coon polydactyls.  One particular breed of polydactyls it found in Ithaca, New York, where it is known as the Ithacat and similarly, a breed around the Cardigan area of Wales that are known as Cardi-cats.

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