by Barbara George
Tellington Ttouch Behaviourist
American author Ernest Hemingway was a man of many talents and interests. He loved and admired the spirit and independence of cats. Hemingway acquired his first cat, Snow White, from a ship’s captain in Key West, Florida, where he made his home for a number of years. Snow White had extra toes; this started a fascination for these cats which carries on today at the Ernest Hemingway Museum and Home in Key West. The cats that live there, most descendents of Snow White but not all polydactyl, are cared for and protected by the terms of his will. hemingwayhome.com
Cats with extra toes are called polydactyl cats, meaning ‘many digits’. The extra toes are genetic; passed down from parents to their kittens. Cats may carry the gene without having extra toes. Most cats have 5 toes on their front paws and 4 on the back; polydactyl cats can have 6, some even 7, on the front paws and 4 or 5 on the back paws. Many are very dexterous with their extra ‘thumbs’. The Guinness World Record holder is Jake, a Canadian ginger tabby with 7 toes on each paw. Apart from having extra claws to be trimmed, there are no disadvantages to polydactyl cats with extra toes.
Although these cats are referred to as ‘Hemingway Cats’ or Mittens, they are not a separate breed although some breeds are more likely to have extra toes, including the Maine Coon.
Currently there are about 50 cats at the Hemingway Museum. Hemingway named all of his cats after famous people and the tradition continues today. The cats are capable of learning and responding to their names, particularly if they have an affectionate relationship with the person who calls them. Funds are raised by selling books and memorabilia.
In Norway, polydactyl cats are known as “ship’s cats”; it is believed that the extra toes give them better balance at sea. They are also rumoured to be excellent mousers.
6-toed Cats were favoured as witches’ familiars; possibly their extra toes helped them balance on the broomsticks!
Slippers, President Theodore Roosevelt’s cat in the White House, was a polydactyl.
Around 40 percent of the original Main Coon cats were polydactyl. Folk lore tells that the extra toes made their already large paws function like snowshoes. Few modern Main Coons have extra toes as this genetic trait has largely been bred out of the breed.
There are other conditions that can cause extra toes or deformities that may have the appearance of polydactyly. These are considered deformities and can cause complications. Double-paws occur when the entire foot is duplicated. Twisty cats have deformed limbs and may have a reduced number of toes. These cats need specific treatment and handling.