The polydactyl: the cat with too many toes.
A visit to great grandma's house
One of the highlights of my childhood was a visit to my great-grandmother's house. My grandmother would sometimes take me when she went to visit her mother on what seemed to me to be a long and arduous journey by bus. The walk from the bus stop to the little old farm where my great-grandmother lived was long and usually windswept as well but the welcome was always warm. My great-grandmother sat by her fireside rather like a grandmother in a fairy story; a tiny, frail woman dressed in black with her long, silver hair knotted up in a bun on the back of her head. But whenever I saw her she was nursing a cat and it wasn't just any old cat. It was a very special cat, a polydactyl cat. A cat with lots of toes. A cat who seemed to be trying to grow opposable thumbs.
The Hemingway cat.
The polydactyl cat is a mutation with extra toes on one or more of its paws, 'polydactyl' being the technical term for this genetic anomaly. But there are many more colloquial names such as 'boxing glove cats', 'mitten cats', 'six-fingered cats' and even 'Hemingway cats' because of Ernest Hemingway's fondness for them. Sailors considered such cats as lucky, probably as the outstanding hunting skills afforded by their extra toes and claws helped them to effectively keep the vermin on board ship under control, and indeed it was a sea captain who gave Hemingway his first six-toed cat. When Hemingway died in 1961 his home in Florida became not just a museum but also a home for his cats. Today Hemingway's house supports around sixty cats, some of them descended from his first polydactyl cat. The museum also keeps up his tradition of giving them fanciful names, such as those of characters from his own books or the names of film stars. So you may meet Sophia Loren in the shrubbery or Charlie Chaplin on the doorstep.
Is polydactylism a disadvantage?
Polydactylism is usually confined to the front paws, where some cats can have as many as seven toes on each paw, which as you might expect, can give them the unusual appearance of having huge paws that look rather like mittens or even boxing gloves. There are even some cats who have extra toes on their hind feet but this is quite rare and having extra toes on all four paws is rarer still but not entirely unknown.
Polydactyl kittens can sometimes have a little more trouble learning to walk than ordinary kittens but once that is mastered these cats often have much more dexterity than average cats. This can enable them to do such things as open doors and even catch things with one paw, which must be rather like using a catcher's mitt. So polydactylism would appear to be the feline version of opposable thumbs and perhaps we should take heed as these could be seen as another step forward in their quest to take over the world. Statistics for 2010 now show that cats are the most popular pet in both the USA and the UK. Not that total domination by cats would change the status quo in the least for some of us. Some of us have been owned by cats all our lives. Dog lovers could be in for a bit of a shock though.
Where do these cats come from?
As far as is known at the current time, it would appear that these cats originated in England and although many believe they are mainly from the south west of the country they are also very common in south west Wales, in the Cardigan area. This has led to yet another nickname for them, 'Cardi-cats'. As valued members of a ships companies however it seems unlikely that we will ever know for sure where they originated as they will have travelled widely. But as a 1950s child growing up in Yorkshire on the eastern side of England, I can vouch that there was certainly a little pocket of them there as well, alive and thriving on my great-grandmother's farm. In fact they may be there still.
Update: Polydactylism can be useful for fund-raising - see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-16121614
But what if the extra toes are really thumbs?
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