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The polydactyl: the cat with too many toes.

Updated on May 9, 2012

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.

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This is one of the Hemingway cats - his name is Hairy Truman
This is one of the Hemingway cats - his name is Hairy Truman | Source
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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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    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      8 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi clara … Sid sounds like a real character!

      It makes you wonder if polydactyl cats have also got an extrovert character … I wonder how we could survey that? :)

    • profile image

      clara Dees 

      8 years ago

      My cat Sid has extra toes on all four feet. He has me wondering sometimes if he is really a cat? he acts like a cougar the way he stalks, he is very good natured and he will chase you like a dog when your playing with him, even if you hide he will wait, and pounce.. but in a fun way.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      9 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Thank goodness you saved him, Dennis ... what a sweetie you must be! Much love to you and Mr Toes ;)

    • profile image

      Dennis OB 

      9 years ago

      We have a salem point who was ond day away from being put down. My wife and daughter texed and said can we keep him. At first, and having 4 already i said NO...,, But he has extra toes....... I say he does? Picture sent to me and i being a sucker for kitties with extra toes say why yes bring him home.... His name.... Mr. Toes!

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      9 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      They do look like big mittens, don't they ... but it don't make them any less cute!

      Many thanks for taking the time to zip over here and read this hub ... x

    • quester.ltd profile image

      quester.ltd 

      9 years ago

      Extra note: I noticed that Fred's extra toes were shorter than the other four. Sam's are the same length - in fact they look as if she was trying to grow an extra foot on her front paws.

      q

    • quester.ltd profile image

      quester.ltd 

      9 years ago

      poydactyl - yes, that is the word for our Sam - as I said she has an extra toe on each hind foot plus two extra toes of each front foot - and that adds up to twenty two toes altogether. She is quite graceful with all her toes and loving ways.

      Thanks Angie Jardine - you said this was an interesting hub and it certainly is - up, interesting and one other just for the heck of it!

      q

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi TL - thanks for the dog fact ... must admit that I checked the accents of the polydactyls. Damn, more research.

      Twenty -eight, eh? Must be about 15 toes a foot then - sorry maths was never my strong point. :)

      As one colonial kid to another I'm glad to see you here ...

    • Twilight Lawns profile image

      Twilight Lawns 

      10 years ago from Norbury-sur-Mer, Surrey, England. U.K.

      According to LBC this week, dogs, at last, have outnumbered cats in the UK. Dogs amount to about 8.5 Millions, whereas cats come in at slightly less, at about 8.3 Millions.

      I was passing through Aden in the Yemen in early 1965, and as far as I could see, the majority of cats were polydactyl. So where these guys came from, I can't imagine. None seemed to have Devonian accents. Perhaps you could check the next one you meet in this country and see (or hear) if it has a Yemeni accent.

      Several (although I wasn't doing much of a toe count) that I met in Aden had twenty-eight toes. (You do the mathematics).

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      That's kind of you ...thanks brewskitimeguy ... I'm with you about animals, especially cats ... of all sizes.

      All the best ...

    • brewskitimeguy profile image

      brewskitimeguy 

      10 years ago from Maine

      Love your article...I enjoy animals more than people..love your writing

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Glad to be of service, Cardelean, and many thanks for commenting.

    • cardelean profile image

      cardelean 

      10 years ago from Michigan

      Wow I had no idea that existed. I learned a lot, thanks for sharing your knowledge.

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      You're welcome, Sharyn ... thanks for the support.

    • Sharyn's Slant profile image

      Sharon Smith 

      10 years ago from Northeast Ohio USA

      I am a cat lover and especially appreciated learning about "Hemingway's house." Thanks for the great read!

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Geisha ... thanks! I didn't know it could happen to humans.

      I think the cats round your way must all have come from a particularly active tom with bicycle : )

    • Literary Geisha profile image

      Literary Geisha 

      10 years ago from Philippines

      nice hub. i have a childhood friend who is polydactyl, but i never knew it could happen to cats too. although the cats in our neighborhood are unusual - eye colors don't match. :P

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Thanks for your input, Ghost ... I'm sure a few of us old girls have known a few polydactyls in our time : )

      Just so long as we've all got cats of one sort or another so we can tell who the good guys are, eh? (Note to dog lovers: this is a joke).

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Patty ... kind of you to drop in and vote for this. I appreciate your support ...

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Mrs Menagerie ... there are so many in Boston because it has been a trading sea port for a long time. Guess those old polydactyls went on shore leave and got themselves a 'good time', if you know what I mean. Probably left kittens in every port ...

      Ah well, that's Nature for ya ...

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Thanks, Ravko - as far as I'm concerned all cats are great ... extra toes or not : )

    • Angie Jardine profile imageAUTHOR

      Angie Jardine 

      10 years ago from Cornwall, land of the eternally youthful mind ...

      Hi Heart .. weren't they just! They look so clumsy but cute at the same time.

      Thanks for stopping by ..

    • profile image

      Ghost32 

      10 years ago

      Intriguing indeed. I think my wife may have known a polydactyl or two, but that would have been before she met me. Ours (since we've been together) have all been garden variety puss-paws.

    • Patty Inglish, MS profile image

      Patty Inglish MS 

      10 years ago from USA and Asgardia, the First Space Nation

      This is all very intersting. Voted Up and rated as well. The pictures are very nice additions.

    • Mrs. Menagerie profile image

      Mrs. Menagerie 

      10 years ago from The Zoo

      I used to live in Boston were I saw a lot of these funny felines. I always thought their feet looked like some kind of sea creature...with fur.

    • ravko profile image

      ravko 

      10 years ago

      We have two great cats, but neither of them have extra toes...Enjoyed the video

    • heart4theword profile image

      heart4theword 

      10 years ago from hub

      We have an awesome cat, with the extra toes:) Fred was fun to watch...thank you for the video! Great memories at Grandmother's house:) By the way, them were some big paws!

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