Wednesday, September 14, 2011

All About Polydactyl Cats

By Julia Williams

Polydactyl cats are not a specific breed, but they do have a unique characteristic that is immediately noticeable – extra toes! These extra toes make their paws look gigantic, rather like they are wearing mittens, hence the nicknames “mitten cat” and “mitten foot cat.” Another nickname is “thumb cats,” because some polydactyl cats have separated toe clusters which make them appear to have a thumb on their paw. The term polydactyl is of Greek origin and comes from poly- (many) + daktylos (fingers or toes).

Most domestic cats have 18 toes: five on both front paws and four on each hind paw. Polydactyl cats, however, are born with extra toes as a result of a genetic mutation. Polydactyls typically have one or two extra toes on their front paws. Although a polydactyl cat can have up to seven extra toes on either the front or hind paws, it’s more common for the extra toes to be on the front paws only. It’s rare for a polydactyl cat to have extra toes on their hind paws only, and rarer still to have extra toes on all four paws.

The Polydactyl Gene

The extra toes on a polydactyl cat are the result of a mutant gene (Pd) that is dominant. This means that if one cat parent has extra toes, there’s a high probability that some of the offspring will be polydactyl too. If both parents have extra toes, this further increases the likelihood that they’ll produce polydactyl kittens.

The polydactyl anomaly is found in many other animals besides cats, including humans, dogs, chickens, horses, mice and guinea pigs. Domestic cats of all breeds and colors can have extra toes, though polydactyly is most common in Maine Coon cats. Presently, the standards for all CFA recognized breeds disqualify a pedigreed cat with extra toes, and responsible breeders won’t breed a cat known to carry the Pd gene.

Other Nicknames for Polydactyl Cats

Extra toed cats have many nicknames besides the three I mentioned above, and “Hemingway Cats” is by far the most popular. Noted American author Ernest Hemingway acquired a white polydactyl cat named Snowball from a ship’s captain, and became quite fond of it. After his death in 1961, Hemingway's estate in Key West, Florida became a museum and a home for his cats, some of which are descendants of the original polydactyl cat. There is currently a colony of 40-50 cats living on the museum grounds, and about half of them are polydactyl. Although I wasn’t able to discover who coined the term “Hemingway Cats” in reference to polydactyls, it’s thought to have originated because the cats of the Hemingway Museum have become so popular and well known. 

Polydactyl cats are also sometimes called mitten-toed cats, boxing cats, six-finger cats and double-pawed cats. A lesser known nickname is Cardi-cats, from the Cardigan district in southwestern England where a significant population of extra-toed cats lives Some polydactyl cats have an extra digit on the side of their paw, rather like human opposable thumbs, which enables them to use their paws to pick things up and even open cabinets. (Okay, that is impressive – but my cat Rocky doesn’t have any extra toes, and he opens my cabinets every day!).

Caring for a Polydactyl Cat

Some polydactyl cat’s claws are in awkward positions, which prevent them from being filed down naturally through the act of scratching. This can cause them to snag their claws on your carpet and/or the furniture, resulting in damage to not only their paw but your couch as well. Untrimmed nails can also grow around and into the cat’s paw pad, causing discomfort and possibly an infection. All polydactyl cats should have their claw’s trimmed regularly and inspected for ingrown claws, ripped toes, infections and growth problems related to the extra toes. Other than that, polydactyl cats don’t need any special care, and their extra toes typically don’t present a problem or handicap.

I’ve never had a polydactyl cat myself, but I certainly wouldn’t mind. I think the extra toes are kind of cute, and besides, it makes these special kittens with mittens stand out from the crowd!

Photo by Emilie Hardman

Read more articles by Julia Williams


  1. I once had a feral litter of kittens that I cared for that each had what looked like 7 paws. Two distinct paws on each of three legs. Each paw had 4 toes. They were very easy to find homes for - they were long haired greys and with the extra paws everyone wanted one.

  2. I'm a poly cat!! I've got 7 toesies on each of my front feets and 5 on each of my back ones!!

    Ernie (of course...I'm named after that Hemmingway guy)

  3. We only have one polydactyl cat in our group - Sweet Pea. She is always using them to her advantage...she climbs like a Monkey!

  4. I have never had a poly cat either but I bet they are special. I know that Ernie is special. Great information. I didn't know they could have as many ad 7 toes.

  5. We haven't had a poly, but we have fostered a couple now. We always tell adopters to keep extra close attention to those toys to keep the nails short....

  6. I would love to see one in person. (this is Admiral's mom speaking. I love seeing them in pictures and I would love to have one. I am a paw fan..and having extra toesies on paws..heaven for me.

  7. Wow ! This is a kind of cool ! me and mom never know about poly cats, and we didn't know Ernie and Sweet Pea are one of them. It's so cool to have extra toesies to do special thing. Impressive !

  8. They are beautiful! There was one here, way before me!

  9. The extra toes just make these cats seem extra interesting. We would be unlikely to say the same about people with extra fingers. That would probably make most humans uncomfortable.

  10. Having many toesies is cool! There'll be more toes for licking!

    ~Slash & Bronzy

  11. I'm a poly and everybody thinks it's cute, especially when they want to shake hands. Jeezum! "Nice to meet you, Tom," they say. I don't mind the extra toes, really, even if it makes me walk funny!

    Julie says..I was always wondering about the extra toes only being in front. A very interesting post and one we could identify with (well, Tom could :)

    Julie & Tom
    xoxo (our first visit-enjoyed it very much)

  12. I haven't seen this talked about and I learned a lot here! Back when I was a college kid, my sister gave me a white kitten who had long soft, angora like hair. I eventually figured out that her odd looking feet had extra toes--she had an extra on every foot--4 extra for 24 total. Her feet looked like catchers mitts. Then I realized she was deaf too. So she lived her life called "white kitty" and really was a wonderful house cat for a long time. I still miss her.

  13. I have a 24 toes cat named 6toe. I am very fond of him and also is my first cat.

  14. My Polydactyl cat has a small head, stubby tale, long rear legs and shorter front legs and a wide body. He is much bigger than his brother. He is mostly black with some white markings on his chest. At 29 lbs Bullwinkle is a very big cat. His brother is big like he is, only he's a normal cat body, just big. Rocky goes at 24 lbs, is black with more white markings than his brother. They will soon be 6 years old and I may have to give Bullwinkle up as he has stopped using his litter box for some unknown reason. The bother live in a handicap apartment in Williamsport, PA. Is there anyone out there that would like two cats.

    1. Two things. (1) Take him to the vet and have him checked out to see if the problem is physical and (2) make sure you are using unscented kitty litter.


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