What Are Polydactyl Cats?

Where Hemingway Cats Got Their Name

Orange and white polydactyl cat lying on carpet

Ian Collins / Flickr / Creative Commons

People love cats that have unique qualities that set them apart from other cats. There are cats with rare patterns, cats who have different colored eyes, cats with oddly shaped faces, and even cats with extra toes, referred to as polydactyl cats. Polydactyl cats were brought to the attention of many people in part by the famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, who had a love for cats with many digits. Now, many people share Hemingway's affection for these special cats!

Ernest Hemingway's Polydactyl Cats

Many people have read at least one of Ernest Hemingway's books, and while he's known for such novels as "A Farewell to Arms" and "The Old Man and the Sea" and even won a Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, less known is that he loved boxing, and owned polydactyl cats. His home in Key West, Florida, where he wrote some of his best books, is now a museum that houses descendants of Ernest Hemingway's first polydactyl cat, Snow White, as well as other cats with extra toes.

Polydactyl cats were thought of as good luck by sailors, and Snow White was given to Hemingway by a ship's captain in the 1930's. Today, 40 to 50 polydactyl cats reside at the Hemingway House despite the writer's passing in 1961. The house is open to the public as a museum and the staff continues to care for the cats, the home, and the gardens. Not all of the cats that live at the Hemingway House are direct descendants of Snow White, but all of them are polydactyl cats. Because of this history and the prevalence of polydactyl cats at the Hemingway House, these extra digit cats are often referred to as Hemingway cats.

What Is a Polydactyl Cat?

Polydactyl cats are not a specific breed and any breed of cat can be born with polydactyly. Polydactyl cats are simply cats who share the physical or genetic trait of having extra toes. The Maine Coon breed is thought to have been the first breed of cat with extra toes and it's often seen with them to this day. Sailors fancied these large cats with extra toes because it supposedly made them more sturdy aboard a rocking ship.

Polydactyly comes from a dominant gene and the word itself means "many fingers." It's also known as hyperdactyly and can be seen in humans as well as various animals, including dogs, cats, pigs, sheep, guinea pigs, mice, cows, reptiles, amphibians, and even horses. There are three types of polydactyly, and Maine Coon cats typically have preaxial polydactyly. They may be referred to as "Hemingway mutants" due to the specific type of gene mutation and the prevalence seen in this breed. Only a polydactyl cat can give birth to a polydactyl kitten, but it's not a favorable trait in breed selection since it's considered a fault in most breed standards.

How Many Toes Does a Polydactyl Cat Have?

Cats normally have 18 toes with five toes on each front paw and four toes on each hind paw. Polydactyl cats can have any number of additional toes on any foot, but they are most commonly seen on the front feet. The current record for cats with the most toes is up to 28 toes, but the majority of polydactyl cats have only one or two additional digits on a foot.

Can Extra Toes Cause Problems in Cats?

Most polydactyl cats never experience an issue with their extra toes but occasionally problems can arise due to the location or unknown presence of these digits. Some extra toes are hidden by fur and the nails on these hidden toes may grow into the paw pads. If the nails aren't in a physical location on the foot to be naturally worn down like other nails, they may become ingrown. Ingrown nails are painful, will cause the paws to become swollen, and will become infected if not addressed and trimmed like the rest of the toenails.

Occasionally polydactyl cats will get the extra digits stuck in blankets or looped carpet, but overall, polydactyly does not cause an issue for cats. If you are looking to show a polydactyl cat in a conformation competition, it may not place well. According to The International Cat Association, extra toes are not considered to be part of an acceptable breed standard for any breed except the Pixie Bob.