The Amazing Hemingway Cats

Many-Toed Polydactyl Cats

Connor the polydactyl cat
Ian Collins/Creative Commons/Flickr

Ernest Hemingway was an amazing man, with many talents and interests. The Nobel Prize winner is seen as one of the great American 20th century novelists, and is known for works such as "A Farewell to Arms" and "The Old Man and the Sea."

Born on July 21, 1899, in Cicero, Illinois, Hemingway served as an ambulance driver in World War I and worked in journalism before publishing his story collection "In Our Time." In 1953, his "The Old Man and the Sea" won a Pulitzer Prize. Hemingway committed suicide on July 2, 1961, in Ketchum, Idaho.

Hemingway's Love For Cats

Hemingway was also an unashamed cat lover because he admired the spirit and independence of cats. Hemingway acquired his first cat from a ship's captain in Key West, Florida, where he made his home for a number of years. This cat, which may have been a Maine Coon, had extra toes (technically known as polydactyl, Latin for "many digits"). Today, approximately 60 cats, half of them polydactyl, make their home in the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Home, in Key West, protected by the terms of his will.

Today, the Hemingway House, as it was once called, raises funds by selling Hemingway's books and other memorabilia, and even providing for private weddings of all sizes.

At least some of those cats here are descendants of Hemingway's first cat and are given fanciful names, as he once did, after movie stars and even characters in his book. The cats of the Hemingway Museum are so popular and so well-known, that the nickname "Hemingway Cats" has often been given to polydactyls.

What is Polydactyl?

The trait for polydactyl comes from a dominant gene, and only a polydactyl cat can parent another polydactyl. Although the Maine Coon (whose ancestors are also thought to have immigrated to the U.S. aboard ships) is believed to have been the first breed to have this trait, polydactyly is considered a fault in that breed, and indeed in every other breed except the Pixie-Bob, a relatively new breed.

So, rather than a breed, polydactyl is just a genetic trait, somewhat like the genetics for the tabby pattern. Instead of the normal 18 toes (five on each front foot and four on the rear) found on most cats, polydactyls have six or more toes on the front feet, and sometimes an extra toe on the rear. (The cat depicted in the first photo has seven toes in front, which makes it easy to understand why they are sometimes called "Mitten Cats.") However, unlike the popular tabby, whose pattern can be found in many breeds, the polydactyl is frowned upon by breed registries. Why? According to Barbara French, although not inherently dangerous, there is a possibility that the extra toes could be malformed, either with two toes fusing or with ingrown toenails.

Although not approved as "purebreds," polydactyl are adored by their human companions. Whether called "polydactyls," "Hemingway Cats," or "Mittens," these many-toed cats warm the hearts and hearths of those people fortunate to share a home with one.