- Not a substitute for professional veterinary help.
Cats usually have five toes on their front paws and four on their back paws, but polydactyl cats have at least six toes on one or more of their paws—even more adorable toes to admire, in other words.
The term “polydactyl” derives from the Greek for “many fingers,” and some polydactyl cats have plenty of extra appendages: sometimes up to nine toes per paw!
They may also have elongated toes, which gives them super distinctive paw prints. In fact, some of the other names for polydactyl cats—like mitten paws, snowshoe cats, boxing cats, and thumb cats—come from the unique shape of their prints.
If you’ve never had the pleasure of meeting a cat with six or more toes, you might assume they’re pretty rare. But these adorable felines are more common than you might think. Get the details on polydactyl cats, including why they have so many toes, where they originally come from, and whether they have any extra health problems (short answer—not usually).
Polydactyl Cats Have A Genetic Mutation
Polydactyly is an inherited genetic mutation. It’s typically passed on by an autosomal dominant trait, explains Anita Patel, Area Medical Director at IndeVets. Autosomal simply means the gene is found on a non-sex chromosome.
“Within the genetics of a species, traits are determined by alleles which are the codes that make up how our bodies are designed. Polydactyl expression in cats only requires one allele from one parent,” Patel says.
To put it simply, your cat could be polydactyl if just one of their parents has the gene—it doesn’t matter whether the other parent has the gene. If one parent cat is polydactyl, there’s a 40%-50% chance they’ll have polydactyl kittens.
There Are Three Types of Polydactyl Cats
As noted above, cats typically have four digits on each of their hind paws and five digits on each of their front paws. The front paw includes the dewclaw, which doesn’t bear weight. You can think of the dewclaw as a non-functional thumb.
Any more digits, and you’ve got a polydactyl cat. It doesn’t matter where those digits show up. Some cats have an extra dewclaw in the front, while others have one—or more—in the back.
Experts break polydactyly down into three different types:
- Postaxial: This means a cat’s extra toes are on the pinky side, or the outside of their paws.
- Preaxial: This means a cat’s extra toes are on the inside of their paws and look a little like a thumb. This is the most common form of polydactyly.
- Mesoaxial: This means the extra toe sits in the center of the paw. This form of polydactyly is very rare.
A majority of polydactyl cats have extra toes on their front paws only, while about 10% of polydactyl cats have more toes on their back feet than on their front feet. Most polydactyl cats have the same number of toes on their two front paws, and the same number on their two back paws—even if the front and back paws have different numbers of toes.
‘Mitten’ Cats Are More Common In Certain Parts Of The World
You may have yet to meet a cat with six—or more—toes, but in certain regions they’re actually pretty common. “When evaluated in the overall population of cats, polydactyly is uncommon but not rare,” Patel says, adding that it may be more common among certain breeds and populations of cats.
For the most part, only domestic cats in the United States and United Kingdom have the genes that cause polydactyly. You’ll only rarely find polydactyl cats in other parts of the world.
What cat breeds are polydactyl?
Some people consider polydactyl cats a separate breed in their own right, called the American Polydactyl. However, they’re not officially recognized as a specific breed.
“Maine Coon and Pixiebob cats are the only two breeds where polydactyly is prevalent enough to be considered a normal variation,” Patel says. “At one point, 40% of Maine Coon cats were polydactyl.” This trait had evolutionary advantages, as those built-in snowshoes meant Maine Coon cats could easily navigate the deep snowdrifts in their home region.
Pixiebobs originated in Washington state in the 1980s. Pixie, the original Pixiebob, had a short tail and a wild appearance—something like a bobcat, which is how the breed got their name.
With Pixiebobs, breeders aim to reproduce both the bobbed tail and polydactyly. In fact, they’re the only cat breed allowed to have extra toes, according to breeding standards, with a maximum of seven toes allowed on each paw.
Are Polydactyl Cats Prone To Health Problems?
Occasionally, some forms of polydactyly can result in health issues, but this is very rare. Polydactyly generally doesn’t pose any concerns for a cat. Non-syndromic polydactyly, the most common type, means your cat simply has extra toes, according to Patel.
But, as Patel goes on to explain, there’s also another type: syndromic polydactyly. For cats with syndromic polydactyly, the genetic changes also cause some type of deformities to the limbs, like short or twisted forelegs. These limb issues can affect cats’ mobility, and in some cases they may need medical treatment to address these concerns, Patel says.
For the most part, though, polydactyl cats don’t have any more health concerns than a cat with the usual number of toes. They also enjoy the same average lifespan—around 12 to 15 years.
Does Polydactyly Have Any Benefits?
Wondering if having more toe beans than the average cat offers any special perks? Patel says this can sometimes be the case. “Polydactyl cats often have wider paws, which can make them more adept at climbing and gaining traction.”
Wider paws can also help with balance, plus give some cats an advantage when it comes to catching their prey. Indoor polydactyl cats who don’t need to catch prey may have an easier time gripping cat toys and treats!
Are they more affectionate?
Some people consider polydactyl cats more affectionate and sociable, suggesting this is because they descended from ship’s cats who lived in close quarters with people. However, no specific evidence backs this up. Their affectionate personalities are more likely due to a combination of overall genetics and their upbringing.
Ernest Hemingway Loved Polydactyl Cats
The author Ernest Hemingway loved polydactyl cats—so much so that they’re often called “Hemingway cats” in his honor.
Hemingway’s first polydactyl cat was a six-toed white Maine Coon cat, a gift from the sea captain Stanley Dexter. He named her Snow White, and she became the founding cat of the colony of polydactyl cats that still live at the Hemingway Home and Museum in Key West, Florida.
He named all of his cats after famous people, a tradition that continues to this day. Currently, around 60 Hemingway cats live at his home. So, if you visit, you’ll likely see some of them wandering the house and grounds. (Plus Hemingway makes a good polydactyl cat name, doesn’t it?)
Are Polydactyl Cats Good Luck?
Polydactyl cats have a reputation as good luck charms, in part due to their history as ship cats. It’s possible their larger paws didn’t just help them catch rats and other pests, but may have also helped them balance and climb more easily. As you might imagine, both of these traits made them a favorite on ships.
Over time, their popularity led to a line of polydactyl cats moving from England to the Boston area, possibly with the Puritans in the 1600s. From there, these cats moved to port towns up and down the Atlantic Coast.
Caring For Polydactyl Cats
In many ways, having a polydactyl cat is much like caring for any other cat. Polydactyl cats may, however, need special care when it comes to nail care and trimming.
Since some of their claws won’t touch the ground, they can quickly become overgrown, but a sharp set of cat nail clippers will help keep those claws in check! Not sure you want to tackle the job yourself? Your vet or groomer can also trim their claws.
If you’re lucky enough to own a mitten-paw kitty, it’s also a good idea to make sure they have a good selection of scratching posts, boards, and cat trees. Offering plenty of options lowers the chances of any destructive scratching on other surfaces, like your favorite armchair.
Many people consider these extra-toed felines adorable and affectionate companions—and we’re in full agreement!