Polydactyl cats occupy a unique place in both cat biology and historical significance. The term "polydactyl" refers to the extra digits present on a cat's paw. It is perhaps the association with historic figures that ensures the special place these in Americana.
Normally, cats have four digits and a dew claw on each of their front paws, with four toes on each of the back paws. In a polydactyl cat, a cat will have six or more total digits on a front paw. Extra digits may also occur in the back feet. A genetic mutation causes this occurrence.
As you may guess, it can be quite noticeable, and it almost gives a cat the appearance of wearing mittens. Legend has it that extra toes can help a cat hunt better. According to Cats International, polydactyl cats were considered "lucky" because of their superior hunting ability.
This fact may account for the prevalence of six-toed cats on the East Coast where ships sailed into ports. During the early days of ship transport, cats served an important function on ships and acted as natural exterminators. Any characteristic which could improve their ability to hunt was desirable, hence the polydactyl's connection with the shipping industry.
Maine Coon Cats
Some people find the larger feet of polydactyl cats endearing. It is a characteristic often associated with Maine Coon cats. The larger feet appear fitting for a breed which can weigh up to 18 pounds or more. The original Maine Coon cat descended from these seafaring pets. Their connection to the past gives them the unique distinction of being the official cat of the state of Maine.
The polydactyl trait, however, is not part of the current show standard. The polydactyl Maine Coon cat is more typical of a cat bred for pet quality rather than the show ring. The presence of extra digits will disqualify a cat from show competition.
While polydactyl cats have been around for hundreds of years, their fame grew with a cat named Snowball that was given to author Ernest Hemingway in 1935 by a sailor. Hemingway was living in Key West, Florida at the time. A devoted cat lover, he is quoted to have said, "One cat just leads to another." No truer words were ever spoken.
Hemingway's assortment of pets grew to about 50 cats that roamed free on his property. Today, the Ernest Hemingway Home and Museum keeps the original line of polydactyl cats going and ensuring their viability for future generations. Some 60 cats live on the museum grounds, and all have ties to Hemingway's original polydactyl felines.
These six-toed cats enjoy not just their famous links with the past, but community support as well. Despite efforts by the U.S. Department of Agriculture to remove them, the Key West City Commission declared the cats to be, "…of historic, social and tourism significance." Not too many cats hold such a high honor.
In addition to Hemingway, President Theodore Roosevelt also had a polydactyl cat named Slippers. Like Hemingway's cats, Slippers roamed freely. His famous home was shared with his feline companion, Tom Quartz.
Caring for a Polydactyl Cat
If you are fortunate enough to own a polydactyl cat, you will need to take special care with your pet's paws. The different shape of the paw may interfere with your cat's ability to scratch and shed the sheaths of its nails. There is also the risk that a nail may grow back into her paw. You should keep your pet's nails trimmed and examine them periodically to make sure they appear healthy.
As long as owners pay attention to the nails, there is no reason a polydactyl cat can't have a completely normal life. These cats hold a unique place in the hearts of those who love them.