A polydactyl cat is one that is born with a very specific genetic anomaly: it has more toes than normal on one of more of its paws.
This mutation doesn’t cause any significant health issues, and, indeed, polydactyl cats are bred for this trait.
Normal cats have 18 toes, five on each front paw, including the dew claw, which is on the inside of the front paws, and four on each back paw.
Polydactyl cats – also known as hyperdactyl cats – have more than the usual allotment of toes on either their front paws or their back paws.
Cats with more toes than usual on all four paws are extremely uncommon, though, as are back/front-paw polydactyl pairings.
There are two common types of polydactyl cats, and which type a specific cats belongs to depends on where the extra front paw toes are situated.
Those with extra toes on the outside of the paw have large, flat paws and are called pancake- or snowshoed-pawed cats.
Those with the extra toes next to the dew claws, however, seem to have opposable thumbs, are extremely dexterous and are known colloquially as “mitten paws”.
There is, arguably, no genetic limit to how many extra toes a polydactyl cat can have, and cats with this particular mutation can have any number from 19 upwards.
The cat that presently holds the Guinness World Record for the highest number of toes is Jake, who comes from Ontario, Canada, and he clocks in at 28 toes!
At least one other cat with 28 toes has been recorded, however – a kitten called Fred who arrived in 2011 – but whether or not he’ll take over the record is not yet known.
No one really knows where and how polydactyl cats came into being, but, as they’re found worldwide, their specific genetic mutation appears to be common and spontaneous.
Breeding cats especially for polydactylism was especially prevalent on the American North East Coast in the 18th and 19th centuries when these cats, known for their agility and climbing skills, were put to work as ships’ cats.
It was, indeed, a ship’s captain who gave a polydactyl to the renowned author, Earnest Hemingway, which started Hemingway’s lifelong love affair with these cats.
Descendants of that original multi-toed cat, Snow White, still live in Hemingway’s house, which is now a museum, and this is why polydactyls are also sometimes called Hemingways.
Breeds that show polydactylism include the Maine Coon, the Ragamuffin and the Selkirk Rex, although having this trait will disqualify these cats from most competitions.
Two minority breeds which almost always show polydactylism are the Ithacat, specific to the Ithaca region of New York state, and the Welsh Cardi-cat.
The American Polydactyl is the closest thing to a polydactyl breed, and these cats are bred specifically to continue and increase the number of multi-toed cats.
Apart from having extra toes, polydactyls are exactly the same as any other cats and deserve the love and respect that all cats do.