Polydactyl Cats: Understanding Cats With Extra Toes

Key takeaway

Polydactyly is a genetic mutation that causes cats to be born with extra toes. These extra toes are usually functional, and cats born with polydactyly aren't at risk of any mutation-related illnesses. Other than trimming their nails more often, you can care for a polydactyl cat the same way you would any other cat.

If you've spent a lot of time looking at cat toes, you may have noticed that most of them have 18 toes in total, with five toes on each of the front paws and four on the back. However, it's not uncommon for cats to have more toes than this. For example, have you ever seen a cat with thumbs? These cats, called polydactyl cats, have extra toes on their front or back paws. 

While many people love polydactyl cats, others may avoid them in shelters because of their genetic mutation. However, when you adopt a pet, you may not be able to find one that has every trait on your wishlist. Pet adoption statistics tell us that more than 6 million pets are in shelters waiting for forever homes, so if you're looking to become a pet parent, consider adopting a cat with polydactyly. If you've seen cats with extra toes, you may wonder what caused it. Keep reading to learn more about polydactyl cats. 

Why Does My Cat Have Extra Toes?

Polydactyl cats are born with more than the usual number of toes on their paws

If your cat has extra toes, they're affected by a congenital physical anomaly, or birth defect, called polydactyly. Cats are born with this genetic mutation; they don't get it as growing cats. The word “polydactyly” comes from the Greek word “poly”, which means many, and “daktulos”, which means fingers. Congenital physical anomalies can be either structural or functional, and polydactyly is structural, meaning that a part of the body is formed differently.1 

These extra toes come from a non-sex-related (autosomal) dominant trait that expresses itself differently in some cats.2 This genetic mutation can result in 6-toed cats and cats with extra toes, giving some anywhere from five to nine toes on a single paw. While the front paws are typically most affected by polydactyly, it can affect any paw. 

Luckily, this mutation is completely harmless and won't affect your cat's health. Instead, any extra toes won't affect their quality of life in any way. The gene associated with polydactyly is called Sonic Hedgehog, the same gene associated with this mutation in other animals, including humans.3 

Are Polydactyl Cats Rare?

Polydactyl cats aren't as rare as you would think. They're actually pretty common. If one cat parent has polydactylism, there's a 40-50% chance the litter of kittens will inherit it.4 Polydactylism can affect any breed, even Bengal cats, but it's most common in Maine Coons and Pixie Bobs.2 Also, it is believed that polydactyl cats are especially common along the east coast of North America and Canada, but they are also found in southwest England and Wales.5 

Normally, cats have 18 total toes, but polydactyl cats can have as many as nine toes on their front or hind paws. A cat named Jake has the world record for the most toes on a cat, with seven on each paw, giving him a total of 28 toes.6 

The History And Folklore Of Polydactyl Cats

Polydactyl cats have been around for a while, with many people developing an affection for them. Perhaps the most well known of them all is famous American novelist Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway received a 6-toed cat from a ship captain while he was living in Key West, Florida, naming her Snow White. He revered these cats so much that they are now also colloquially known as “Hemingway cats.” Even now, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum is home to around 60 polydactyl cats. 

Polydactyl cats were thought to be lucky by ship captains, who often had a few of them onboard. They were thought to be lucky because of their extra toes that gave them better balance in stormy weather. They were also believed to be better at hunting mice. In a study conducted by Cornell University in 1988, it was concluded that the first polydactyl cats arrived from England to Boston with the Puritans in the mid 1600s and were later brought to Halifax and Nova Scotia on ships.

Is Polydactyly Painful For Cats?

Polydactyl cats rarely experience any negative health effects due to their condition

Polydactyly is not painful for cats, and it doesn't cause any other health problems. If your cat has extra toes, there's nothing wrong with them. Instead, it just means a little extra cat grooming. These toes have toenails that you'll need to trim, but other than that, there's nothing pet parents need to worry about. Occasionally, the extra toe may not be completely formed with a deformed nail bed, potentially leading to claw issues, such as ingrown claws. 

In most cases, these extra toes can even be beneficial for cats. Polydactyl cats have larger paws to accommodate their extra toes, potentially allowing them to have better balance when climbing and hunting, as believed by sailors. 

How To Take Care Of Polydactyl Cats

Taking care of a polydactyl cat is similar to caring for any other cat. Their personality is based on their genetics and how they're raised. For example, you could have antisocial, playful, fearful, or social cats with extra toes. These extra toes mean extra nails you need to trim regularly. Trimming your cat's nails can prevent them from getting snagged on fabric on your furniture or carpet while also preventing it from overgrowing into their toes. Provide them with an adequate number of scratching posts to further mitigate this issue as well.

Luckily, polydactyl cats are as healthy as any other cat, and their extra toes don't cause any illnesses, so you don't have to worry about their health as far as their extra toes are concerned. Instead, you should take care of them like you would any other cat by feeding them a balanced and complete diet, ensuring they get enough mental and physical stimulation by playing with cat toys and scratching posts, and taking them to the vet for their annual wellness exam. 

Other Genetic Anomalies In Cats

Polydactyly isn't the only genetic anomaly in cats. For example, did you know that the male tortoiseshell cat is a genetic anomaly? They have a chromosomal abnormality that allows them to have three chromosomes responsible for they're coloring as a mix of a black and orange cat. Here are a few other genetic mutations you should know about: 

Short Tails Or No Tails

Manx cats are from the Isle of Man between Ireland and England.7 However, where they're from doesn't make them unique. What makes Manx cats different from your average cat is that they either don't have tails or have short tails. There are four varieties of these cats with varying tail lengths. Another physical trait is that they have a rabbit-like gait and appear to hop rather than walk.7  Unfortunately, some Manx cats have a birth defect called spina bifida occulta, in which the spine doesn't close properly during their development, resulting in a tailless appearance. Cats with this disorder may not be able to properly control their urination or defecation and may have decreased reflexes and weakness in their hind legs.8 While it's possible for a Manx cat to have this condition, they're typically considered a healthy breed. 

Folded Ears Or Extra Ears

Some cats have folded ears or even extra ears. Scottish Fold cats are born with folded ears, a condition called Scottish Fold osteodystrophy9 due to a cartilage defect, which can affect the joints, causing joint issues and scoliosis.10

It's also possible for cats to be born with an extra set of “ears”, although this condition is much rarer. Cats with four ears don't actually have four ears; rather, they have an extra appendage near the ears that look like ears. This genetic mutation is purely aesthetic and not associated with any health issues.10

Dwarfism

Dwarfism is another common mutation in cats, with many people looking for Munchkin cats to adopt. Munchkin cats are popular with their short little legs. However, cats with dwarfism can't run, jump, or climb like other cats. They're also prone to arthritis and other health conditions.10

Polydactyl Cats: Frequently Asked Questions

Do polydactyl cats have problems?

No, polydactyl cats do not have any underlying health conditions associated with their extra does. Instead, this difference in their paw structure is typically purely aesthetic. Caring for a polydactyl cat is similar to caring for any other type of cat. They can develop diseases and illnesses due to improper diet and nutrition, lack of exercise, and genetic reasons. However, there is no illness associated with a cat having extra toes. 

Are polydactyl cats inbred?

Polydactyl cats are not inbred. Instead, they have a genetic mutation that has been passed down by one of their parents. If one cat parent has a mutation, at least one of their kittens likely will. Polydactyl is a dominant trait, not an uncommon recessive trait typically explained by inbreeding. Therefore, any cat with a polydactyl parent may have extra toes. 

Do polydactyl cats need extra care?

The only type of extra care polydactyl cats need is that you'll need to trim a few extra toenails. Other than that, your cat will live a healthy life as long as you take proper care of them like any other cat. 

Close up of a cat paw affected by polydactyly

Final Notes

Polydactyl cats have long been adored and have a long history of being considered good luck by sailors. While this genetic mutation may seem strange at first, there's nothing wrong with polydactyl cats. Instead, they simply have extra toes. These cats don't require any extra care except for the fact they'll need to have a few more claws taken care of when it's time to trim them. 

Polydactyl cats can live long, healthy lives with a dedicated pet parent. Wondering how to become a better pet parent to your cat? Try Dutch telemedicine for pets. We offer virtual pet care to diagnose and treat a variety of illnesses in cats to ensure your cat lives a long healthy life. 

References

  1. “About Birth Defects.” Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, https://www.nichd.nih.gov/health/topics/birthdefects/about.

  2. Hamelin A;Conchou F;Fusellier M;Duchenij B;Vieira I;Filhol E;Dufaure de Citres C;Tiret L;Gache V;Abitbol M; “Genetic Heterogeneity of Polydactyly in Maine Coon Cats.” Journal of Feline Medicine and Surgery, U.S. National Library of Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32067556/.

  3. Laura A. Lettice, Alison E. Hill, Paul S. Devenney, Robert E. Hill, “Point mutations in a distant sonic hedgehog cis-regulator generate a variable regulatory output responsible for preaxial polydactyly.” Human Molecular Genetics, Volume 17, Issue 7, 1 April 2008, Pages 978–985, https://doi.org/10.1093/hmg/ddm370

  4. “NCI Dictionary of Genetics Terms.” National Cancer Institute, https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/genetics-dictionary/def/autosomal-dominant-inheritance.

  5. “All about Hemingway Cats: The Cats with Extra Toes.” Michelson Found Animals Foundation, https://www.foundanimals.org/all-about-hemingway-cats-the-cats-with-extra-toes/.

  6. “Most Toes on a Cat.” Guinness World Records, https://www.guinnessworldrecords.com/world-records/most-toes-on-a-cat.

  7. “Manx.” PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/cat/breeds/c_ct_manx.

  8. Packer, Rebecca A. “Congenital and Inherited Disorders of the Nervous System in Cats - Cat Owners.” Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/cat-owners/brain,-spinal-cord,-and-nerve-disorders-of-cats/congenital-and-inherited-disorders-of-the-nervous-system-in-cats.

  9. Harari, Joseph. “Developmental Osteopathies in Dogs and Cats - Musculoskeletal System.” Merck Veterinary Manual, 18 Oct. 2022, https://www.merckvetmanual.com/musculoskeletal-system/osteopathies-in-small-animals/developmental-osteopathies-in-dogs-and-cats#v3286563.

  10. “8 Unusual Genetic Anomalies in Cats.” PetMD, https://www.petmd.com/cat/slideshows/8-unusual-genetic-anomalies-cats.